Toward a Shared Understanding: Practicing Dialogue through Community Conversations

29 May 2024
By Valentina Guerrero Challa ‘24

In the spirit of Carleton’s mission “to develop qualities of mind and character that prepare its graduates to become citizens and leaders, capable of finding inventive solutions to local, national, and global challenges,” in the last several years the Peace, Conflict, and Democracy (PCD) cohort has organized community conversations. What originally started as a space where students could discuss topics that concerned the community, has evolved into a series of dialogues that respond to both the interests of participants and the areas of expertise of PCD fellows. In the last three years, for instance, we have organized community conversations on topics as varied as the decolonization of food and the ethics of volunteering. 

At the beginning of fall term, the PCD cohort decided to use this year’s community conversations to encourage community members to have “hard conversations.” That is, one of our goals was to create a space to have important yet challenging conversations that were not happening elsewhere on campus. Unsurprisingly, designing and facilitating “hard conversations” is also a hard task. To prepare for these events, we spent considerable time understanding the difference between safe and responsible spaces, developing our own facilitation skills, and designing the right format to make our conversations a dialogue and not an academic debate. To encourage dialogue, we asked participants to speak to their real, lived experiences and use deep listening skills toward the creation of a shared understanding rather than winning an argument.

As a result of these thoughtful discussions, we organized six different community conversations on the following topics: the role of free speech in higher education, media bias, socio-economic differences among students, the role of individual action in the environmental movement, the ethics of genetic editing, and political participation beyond voting. We also collaborated with the Office of the Chaplain and the Division of Inclusion, Equity, and Community to host student dialogues on Israel and Palestine. Although these events covered a wide range of topics, each conversation allowed participants to engage with perspectives different than their own and practice their critical thinking and communication skills.

As expected, engaging with diverse perspectives was not exempt from challenges. All conversations required both participants and facilitators to be active listeners in order to foster an environment of mutual respect and open-mindedness. Despite the inevitable discomfort that accompanies confronting differing viewpoints, the feedback we collected indicates that participants emerged from these discussions with a deeper understanding of complex issues and an appreciation for the value of civil discourse. One participant shared in our post-conversation feedback form that “I enjoyed having everyone’s personal perspectives on real-world issues/current events, and it broadened my perspective.”

As the PCD cohort continues to organize events to help students navigate a diverse and interconnected world, we hope that community conversations foster dialogue on campus and support creating a community that can hold conflict and difference.

This piece was written by Valentina Guerrero Challa ‘24. Valentina is a Sociology/Anthropology and Computer Science double major and has served as a CCCE fellow in the Peace, Conflict, and Democracy (PCD) cohort for three years. In her capacity as a CCCE fellow, Valentina has contributed to the leadership of the community conversations program which has engaged students in dialogue about issues that impact their lives and across differing perspectives and experiences.

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