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'ETHNIC DIALOGUES' PROVIDE
FORUM FOR BUILDING UNDERSTANDING

By Selena Stevens

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The spring 2001 dialogues will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. weekly  Feb. 6 through March 7 in the UK Student Center.

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Jan. 25, 2001 – (Lexington, Ky.) – Is race real or a political label reified by discriminatory social practices?

It’s the kind of question people sometimes wonder, but often don’t want or don’t know how to talk about.

In the spring of 1999, two groups of 12 people got together on the University of Kentucky campus to take on those topics. The Ethnic Dialogues, sponsored by the UK Inclusive Learning Community, the student group AWARE and the dean of students’ office, used a group setting and a roundtable format to help participants. David Stockham, UK’s former dean of students, and AWARE president John Lindsay developed after the two participated in Lexington's Downtown Christian Unity Taskforce's Race Dialogues. They decided to interweave AWARE programming with the dialogues’ format to create a continuing campus dialogue that would encourage more people to attend and attend regularly, Lindsay said.

"We saw there were people who wanted a non-confrontational way to engage difficult social issues, to combat prejudice and racism and to interact with individuals different from themselves but were hesitant to initiate conversation for fear of ‘saying the wrong thing,’" said Stockham. "We hoped the dialogues would provide a way for individuals to learn to live more comfortably and effectively with diversity."

In a dialogue, a group of racially diverse people are led by a facilitator in discussion about race issues. Members of the local community also participate in the dialogues, offering a “real world” wisdom by sharing their experiences with the groups. The groups meet one night a week for five weeks to discuss experiences, perceptions and beliefs about race relations and steps that can be taken to overcome problems. Topics include everything from affirmative action to xenophobia. Facilitators provide structure, but not so much as to keep the group from exploring any topic of interest.

Lindsay said the groups seek to hear all viewpoints, not just the politically correct ones.

"In fact, we expect that people are going to say the wrong thing or something racist, but the structure of the dialogue is set up to deal with such statements in a non-confrontational way. We are cognizant that people have been taught to believe various things that have been proven to be untrue," he said. “People are not looked down upon or berated for what they may believe. This is an environment that allows us to work through that and understand better.”

Now in their fourth semester, the dialogues are proving popular. Nearly three times the original number of people participate in the groups each semester, with more than the facilitators can accommodate in the semester’s groups signing up. Lexington Community College has hosted dialogues, and plans are under way to spread the dialogues format to other schools. Past dialogues have so impacted participants that some groups have continued to meet after the official five week were up, Lindsay noted.

"We live in a country and world that is becoming increasingly diverse," Stockham said. "There are a growing number of people who realize that learning to communicate across ethnic, cultural and social boundaries makes them more valuable in the workplace and in any other setting in which they want to function more effectively."

Stockham and Lindsay said the reasons for the success of the dialogues is as diverse as the people who participate. Honest communication, curiosity, solving home or work problems, personal growth and class exercises all have been cited as reasons for getting involved.

"The fact that the dialogues don’t have any particular ‘party line’ makes them attractive to some folks," Stockham said. "You can say what you believe. The only requirement is that you speak and listen respectfully."

Although current dialogues focus on race and ethnicity issues, Stockham and Lindsay said they would like to see them branch into new topics as demand and resources arises. The format is flexible enough to involve issues of homophobia, ableism, classism, sexism and heterosexism. They said they also would like to see faculty and other instructors use the dialogues as an option for an out-of-class project when this experience complements course content.

Above all, they would like to see more participation from all segments of the UK campus in the dialogues.

"Put your toe in the water.  The dialogues are not a painful experience," Stockham said. "Most people come away with valuable insights and new friends."

The spring 2001 dialogues will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. weekly Feb. 6 through March 7 in the UK Student Center. For more information on the dialogues, e-mail Stockham by clicking here or Lindsay by clicking here, or by visiting the Web site. Both online and printable applications are available on the Web site.


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