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Appalachian continues building engaged community through Sustained Dialogue initiative, now in its second year

By Linda Coutant

BOONE, N.C.—Appalachian State University begins its second year of participation in the international Sustained Dialogue Institute program in spring 2017 semester, with the goal of building a more cohesive, engaged and understanding campus community.

View larger imageMembers of the Appalachian Community participate in a recent Sustained Dialogue circle. Photo courtesy of Kate Johnson

Sustained Dialogue is a program that helps people transform differences into strong relationships and design change processes. Appalachian initiated the program in early 2016 with help from the Sustained Dialogue Institute in Washington, D.C.

“There’s a real need for a space to have conversations about things we don’t normally talk about,” explained Kate Johnson, Appalachian’s associate director of student engagement and leadership and the Sustained Dialogue program’s interim coordinator. “We often don’t take one and a half hours to talk intentionally about thoughts and feelings. People are often afraid to talk about how they feel, and this gives us the opportunity to explore those feelings and appreciate the multiple truths that exist in a community.”

Sustained Dialogue activities in spring semester for students, faculty and staff include:

  • an Inclusive Leadership Workshop Jan. 27-29 for those interested in developing active listening skills to become dialogue circle moderators
  • a sign-up period until Feb. 1 for those interested in participating in a dialogue circle

For more information on either activity, visit http://sustaineddialogue.appstate.edu

Unlike discussion or debate, the Sustained Dialogue approach is about listening deeply enough to others to be changed by what one learns. It is grounded in listening and respect, enhancing individuals’ abilities to listen and carry out respectful conversations around conflicting views and global challenges in small groups.

Appalachian uses this platform to guide weekly conversations in groups of eight to 12 individuals for 90 minutes on topics such as race, gender identity, religion, politics and various global challenges. Each group, or circle, meets for eight weeks and is led by two trained moderators. The experience is optimum when all circle participants commit to attending and being engaged each week.

The approach is designed to move participants from dialogue to action. “Each participant commits to some sort of action once the group stops meeting, like becoming educated on a particular issue or confronting injustices when they are witnessed,” Johnson said.

Of the four Sustained Dialogue circles that met last fall, one was for students and three were for faculty, staff and graduate students. This followed eight circles that met during the spring 2016 semester. To help broaden awareness of Sustained Dialogue this academic year, organizers of the annual Appalachian Leadership Forum held in November incorporated sessions introducing Sustained Dialogue techniques as part of how to be an inclusive leader and manage conflict. A “Taste of Dialogue” event co-sponsored with AppSpeaks communication club also introduced the concept to another couple of dozen campus community members by allowing them to participate in sample circles for 90 minutes.

Senior Hannah Koch, a women’s studies major from Chicago, said her experience so far as a Sustained Dialogue moderator has offered “a place to build relationships you would not normally have” with her peers. “So many students feel like the odd person out, and this gives us a safe space to express ourselves,” she said.

About Sustained Dialogue

Sustained Dialogue Institute develops leaders able to transform differences into the strong relationships essential to effective decision-making, democratic governance, and peace. The Sustained Dialogue process was codified by Dr. Harold “Hal” Saunders, an American diplomat who was instrumental in a number of peace processes in the Middle East beginning in the 1970s, and has been used in the former Soviet Union, Tajikistan, in the longest continuous meetings between Russian and U.S. citizens, and in other communities around the world. It has been used in higher education since 1999, and has more than 40 campuses in its network today. Learn more at http://sustaineddialogue.org

About Appalachian

Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 18,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.

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