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Finding common ground via the Art of Public Dialogue

CSI has always aimed to be a place where it is safe to have difficult conversations. Our How To Be An Ally series saw conversations about Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

This autumn, we will be partnering with Anima Leadership to host Art of Public Dialogue: Hosting Conversations about Race and Identity, Part 1. This program will help you develop the basic knowledge and skills needed in hosting dialogues about race and identity, as well as the techniques and practices that can be used in organizations or community settings. To learn how it came to be — and what attendees can expect — we had a conversation with Anima Leadership Senior Partner Annahid Dashtgard.

1. What do you think makes people shut down so quickly during conversations about race and ethnicity? What approach does Art of Public Dialogue take to mitigate that?
Race is one of the defining issues of our times. It’s tricky, it’s always been tricky, but ignoring racial differences only makes the issues bigger because the ghosts ignored cycle back as demons. One of the biggest things we all need to get better at is stepping into the uncomfortable conversations across differences of race and other forms of identity.

Most people freeze or go into wounded anger when difference is named, so we need facilitator leaders with more developed inner fluidity around these issues to help open, hold the space, and help people not necessarily agree, but at least come to some understanding.

Facilitators who can host conversations that act as homeopathic doses decreasing the violent polarization growing on these issues. This course is a marathon training for people ready to grab the courage to step into the arena and wrestle with the beast a bit. I love this work, you gotta love it. It’s purpose driven work, and we need more people doing it!

2. Anima and CSI have a long relationship! Can you tell me a bit about that relationship, and how the partnership on this event came together?
We’ve been members for a long time, since 2008. We were members for awhile, and I came in house for a year to help with CSI’s rapid growth. After that, we stayed active guiding the Inclusion Diversity Equity and Accessibility committee. For the last five years we have been offering our two day Deep Diversity training to all incoming Desk Exchange Community Animators across all CSI locations. This helps to seed awareness of the micro-practices that allow CSI to sustain its unique cultures of belonging.

3. What is your biggest dream for The Art of Public Dialogue? What does the world look like if that comes true?
I want a world where people have the meta-skills to disagree without dehumanizing. Where we truly get to harness collective intelligence for innovation and growth and find equitable solutions to conflict because we now know to allow difference to be part of relationship. And ultimately, leadership tables made up of truly diverse people because systems of discrimination where entire groups of people are devalued and held back, are simply eradicated from human consciousness.

4. What can people expect who come to these workshops? What is the Open Forum format and how does it complement the Deep Diversity Approach that Anima has developed?
I am SO excited about this course. About the people coming across North America and Europe. About the faculty we have lined up. About this commitment of building a SWAT team that can move into zones of intense conflict and difference and facilitate relationship rather than allowing it to break. We can do better as people, and this offering is our contribution to making it so.

Our Deep Diversity training covers the all jigsaw puzzle around systemic discrimination: emotions, bias, identity and power. This course is taking all these pieces and applying them in the room, on the spot, with groups of people to help talk about the tough topics that we generally prefer to avoid.

The whole training is based on the idea that this polarization around tribal identities is bad, and it can get worse, and the only way through it, outside of armed conflict (which it can feel like we are alarmingly close to these days), is to get people into rooms and hash through it. Open forums aren’t a magic pill, but they can work magic. They can offer people back a sense of ‘radical mutuality’, a sense of even if we don’t agree, we can see that we are connected in some way.

The Art of Public Dialogue is best suited to those who have existing training in facilitation. If someone doesn’t have that background, what is a first step they can take towards improving the discourse?
As long as people have some degree of comfort in leading groups, that’s fine. If not, we offer a basic course called Authentic Facilitation: Facilitating with Presence and Ease that is a good precursor (the next one is Spring, 2020). Also, outside of leading these bigger conversations, any of us can just find ways to lean into discomfort, to name the assumptions and bias we see people enacting around us, and to apologize when we do make mistakes ourselves. Even though these micro-moments may not feel like much, they add up to a generational shift.

We are one of the first generations to be surrounded by as much difference as sameness (at least in urban centres) and it takes conscious effort to learn the signals of inclusion for people different than ourselves. Unfortunately, I see most people in most organizations shut down to the actual work of changing their behaviour because they don’t want to get it wrong, look bad or feel bad. Let’s just take ‘bad’ out of the equation and just replace it with ‘work’– the good work, the noble work, the work of creating cultures where everyone regardless of identity, feels a sense of belonging.

BONUS QUESTION: You are about to publish a memoir, Breaking the Ocean: Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation. What role do you think personal narrative can take in improving public dialogue?
I think stories have been historically the most powerful teacher in any society, and they continue to be. But story requires vulnerability. I think a lot of us could use more courage to be vulnerable, to be open to what scares us, both inside and out. We have to step into the waters of vulnerability to broker relationship, with ourselves and each other. It doesn’t happen in any other way. Come to my book launch at the AGO on Friday, Sept. 13th to hear more!

Learn more about The Art of Public Dialogue, and secure your spot in the course.

Photo by Tom Hill on Unsplash
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