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2015-02-02 14.17.21I spent  several days last week with two of my colleagues from Israel–Farhat Agbaria and Shachar Yanai. Both are seasoned dialogue facilitators. One is Jewish and one is Palestinian. Both have learned powerful lessons about “the other side” through dialogue. When I met them seven years ago in their world, I was not only inspired by the work they were doing to bring people together across borders there, but moved to continue using the methodology of dialogue to traverse the borders that define our conflicts here in the U.S.

 

Last Tuesday night, the three of us had the opportunity to facilitate together for the first time. And it happened here at Penn State. The dialogue was open to the public, and Foster Auditorium was surprisingly packed for an icy winter evening. Some of you may have already guessed that this kind of open forum changes the intimacy and vulnerability often necessary for the most constructive of dialogues–especially between people in conflict. But we wanted to offer a window to the general public into the way dialogue operates–using different rules than our routine methods of talking and leading to different outcomes as a result. The participants were drawn from Lions for Israel and Students for Justice in Palestine, the student organizations who co-sponsored Farhat and Shachar’s visit (along with Students for Public Diplomacy).

 

At the beginning of the event, I mentioned to the audience and the participants that one simple goal of dialogue is to understand the other side, not to win the argument. And with this goal in mind, either we would all win or we would all lose in this dialogue–because those are the stakes when interdependent communities are in conflict. (That’s all of us.)

 

The conversation started off slowly, with tentative introductions, as well as both palpable excitement and apprehension about what was going to happen in this exchange. But very quickly the group jumped into the conflicting views and positions that were held (or assumed to be held). Statistics were launched. Curt comments acted like verbal slaps. Emotions ran high. True listening ran low.

 

We’ve all seen this kind of interaction. And we’ve all participated in it. Nothing new here. I noted this to the audience.

 

As the exchange continued, we worked to shift the way the participants communicated their positions and passions to one another. At this point the group entered a different kind of tension. Longstanding habits of “communicating to win” are not easy to counter. One of the participants pushed back against our suggestions to speak in specifics about his own experience or to ask his question directly to someone in the circle by saying, “I didn’t come here for group therapy.” That was an important comment, a telling comment. He expressed one informal standard for interacting around conflict which often involves exhibiting a kind of confidence designed to dominate the opposition, not one that looks more like “being nice.” Of course these qualities are not in contradiction to one another, but  being nice is not even close to the intention in dialogue.  The intention is to be heard and to be specific and to take the risk to say what you really mean–as well as to listen to something you may not have heard or may not want to hear. This stuff is far from soft or nice. Actually, this is rugged territory, and bravery is required. And this is exactly why we were motivated to open this dialogue to the public in the first place–to suggest that there is more to “talking” than most have ever considered. The limited experience most of us have had with these methods may be why, when conflict arises, we rarely turn to words and instead reach for weapons.

 

Back to the dialogue.

 

In spite of the explicit conflict present in our circle, I still observed tiny shifts during the conversation that, with time (and no audience), can become the foundation for the differences in outcome I was referring to earlier. What kinds of shifts did I observe? Individual participants acknowledged that others had more nuanced views than what they had assumed when we started, leading to a slight shift in tone as real people (not caricatures) began to fill the seats. In addition, I could see subtle curiosity emerge as those original assumptions were seen to be inadequate. These shifts were not the most dramatic moments of the encounter or maybe the most memorable to the audience, but they were the necessary footholds that allow us to climb, step by step, over huge mountains that stand between us. And that’s what dialogue seeks to do.

 

Did we all win that night? No.

 

Did we all lose that night? No.
Why do I say that? Because the group didn’t reach a new level of understanding in the dialogue. But after the dialogue, I saw the most polarized participants engaged in conversation with each other. That is a giant step. And, as I write, to their immense credit, both student groups have expressed their desires to come back together for a second dialogue. All of these instances mark the slow and subtle work of transforming conflict into collaboration.

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1972501_10152834359998092_2420744851894696032_nThe holidays are a time where my old and new worlds collide. I’m currently working as a literature teacher at a charter school on the South Side of Chicago, where almost all of my students are Black and Latino and living in poverty. I was raised in a white middle class neighborhood outside of Philadelphia. When I arrived home for the holidays I found that many people there wanted to discuss the recent race related protests and news that was sweeping America, and I left home realizing how divergent our views had become from one another.

When discussing Michael Brown or Eric Garner those I know from my home town had a slew of excuses for why those men, and others like them, deserved what they received; how it was inconceivable that police would act violently without a direct threat upon their own lives. I would argue until frustration boiled over and I simply continued repeating my belief and what I assumed was so clear to everyone; people of color and whites are not treated equally by police. That this inequality is rooted in a systemic racism which impacts policing and our justice system.

After reflecting on why I viewed these situations so differently than people in my hometown the source of the problem soon became obvious; a lack of diversity in perspectives. In both my past and current schools, the majority of my students have been black and they have shared with me their encounters with the police which are so often negative. This is not just one student’s story, it’s faculty members, and it’s parents also. Even the police officers that work at my school will acknowledge police aggression, and the mistrust that exists at every turn in our countries impoverished neighborhoods.

I readily admit that when I first heard many of my students speak of these encounters I chalked them up to another high school student exaggerating to make themselves look just a little bit cooler. I can’t count the number of stories I have heard that seemed so outrageous that they bordered on mythical where I nodded my head and tried to rush them through what seemed to be pure fiction. But, I work with these students every day and have formed deep relationships with them, I care for in a way I’ve never experienced before, and when you have a bond with someone you want to hear more of their story and validate their experience. The relationships are what have helped me overcome the boundary of disbelief that exists from having a completely different life experience when encountering the police.

This difference of experiences between white and black interactions with the justice system in America is what exposes much of the racial tension that is still very alive today. Nigerian Author Chimamanda Adichie eloquently spoke on the hazards of a limited perspective in her Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” (http://www.ted.com/talks). She explained the hardship of having outsiders view her through a very limited lens of what they believed Nigeria and Nigerians were, often using just a single story to form the basis of beliefs for an entire people.

The recent news events have exposed that amongst many white Americans there is a continued crisis of a single story of race in America. According to social network analysis done by PRRI’s 2013 American Values Survey, 75% of white people have exclusively white social networks. Overall, the social networks of whites are an astounding 91% white, with only 1% being black on average. When presented with a single narrative that is buttressed by all those around you, and the world you grew up in, it’s extremely hard to challenge and change those views, especially when there is not any diversity to present a different perspective. When enough people around you shout 2+2=5 that thought, however misguided, becomes a reality, as Orwell warned.

It’s not just social networks that’s to blame. Since the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 schools have been legally desegregated, but due to white flight and the failure of large urban school districts all progress has been undone. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, since 1988 the percentage of black students in majority white schools has been on the decline every year, with the most recent data showing that schools that have a majority white population only have 23% black students. The current diversity, or lack of diversity, we see in schools is lower than it was in 1968 and is almost half what it was at its height in 1988 when majority white schools had a 44% black student population. Public school diversity is a reflection of diversity within communities, further exacerbating a perfect storm of singularity.

This limited outlook of race in America leads to the current divisions we have. For example, according to the Pew Research Center 64% of blacks thought that race was a major factor in the grand jury decision in Ferguson, while only 16% of whites said the same. Conversely, 60% of whites said race was not a factor at all, while only 9% of blacks believed that to be true. It’s impossible to have genuine change and progress in our country unless we can form an understanding into these cataclysmic differences.

As a country we cannot remedy our racial ailments unless we seek to broaden our perspective through intentionally diversifying our schools, our communities, and those we have relationships with in our lives. This is no easy task, but it starts with a desire to find perspectives different from our own. It’s approaching conversations with the intent, as author Stephen Covey stated, of “first seeking to understand before being understood”. It’s the relationships that allows my students to feel comfortable poking the red pigment in my hand and asking “why do white people change colors?” and it’s me listening as a student explains the pain of not feeling safe walking home.

Posted by & filed under Collaborators and Partners, Student Contributors.

1795955_10153644702539572_209225341544709975_oThis past semester, I had the privilege of working with Laurie Mulvey and Karim Bataineh to assist with SOC 425, or “Social Conflicts”. This is a dialogue based course in which Social Conflicts are examined through conversations with individuals and groups who are connected to them. Laurie and Karim have created a place for me to explore my understanding of social conflict through a conflict which is personal to me as an American-Jewish woman, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.  As the class has developed, we also speak with contacts from Northern Ireland and South Africa, a beautiful place I lived and studied in this past Spring.

 

As a student in this class during the fall of 2013, my beliefs and perceptions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, as well as the world in general, were consistently challenged. This class had been one of the most difficult of my college career. Sitting down every week and talking directly to students in Gaza, Israelis living in settlements, and various other individuals related to the Holy Land, helped me to view the myriad of sides to this struggle as human. It helped to break down the stereotypes I had developed of both Israelis and Palestinians.

 

As I jump into my third semester of involvement in this course, I am extremely excited to continue the journey of my own self-discovery, and to learn how to provide that space for others. Each class, I have the opportunity to learn something new, be it hearing a perspective I have never heard before, or a person who alters my own view. It is my hope that this semester will be as valuable for this group of students as it has been for me.

 

In this new year, Social Conflicts is seeing some changes, as Aya Bseiso and I will be taking a more hands-on role in helping Laurie to plan, organize, and facilitate the class. I am ecstatic to be working alongside Aya, who is one of my fellow facilitators at World in Conversation, as well as a former participant in SOC 425. I know that I will be able to gain much from her experience and ideas. Together, we will be coordinating contacts for dialogues throughout the semester as we try to experience as many perspectives as possible.

 

“Transforming Conflict into Collaboration” is a tagline of World in Conversation. It is my hope that my contribution to SOC 425 will help to foster an environment where collaboration emerges from conflict and conversation.

Thank you, Laurie, Karim and everyone at WinC for making this opportunity possible! I cannot wait to see what this semester will bring!

-Elicia Yoffee

 

PS- Karim, we miss you in cold and snowy Happy Valley! Hope all is well at home!

 

Posted by & filed under From the Director.

Sam in Doha smallI’m in the middle of my 31st year of college teaching and I’ve had many experiences that lead me to pause and consider the POWER of the classroom when we give ourselves to “what is possible” and not resign ourselves to “what is inevitable.” Three days ago I had the good fortune to create (albeit unwittingly) and then witness (albeit unknowingly) healing in my classroom. And I want to share the experience because I think it matters.

To give some frame to the story, the first photo is taken from the top of 100 Thomas during my 750 student Soc 119 class. It’s a very special classroom because it looks like cathedral.

FromTheTop

Last Tuesday afternoon I had the sudden inspiration to invite into class through a video link a young man from Iran who is also in the Iranian military. He has an intense and gripping and horrific story to tell and I wanted him to share it with my class. I know this young man as a thoughtful and friendly person who loves his country, his family, and his friends (from all over the world).

But just as I knew that he actually needed to share his story, I also had the intuitive sense that he needed to share it with other soldiers. And so I invited to the front three young men from my class who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and had themselves been witness to and carry the burdens of the horrors of war. I had them sit in front of the camera with the rest of the class behind them so that my Iranian friend could see their faces and speak directly to them.

Photo 3

I was impressed by their willingness but I could also intuit that they understood the “brotherhood” that they shared with another man on the other side of the world, a soldier in an army that most Americans distrust and fear at best. And they listened as this stranger told his first-hand account of a horrific slaughter of civilians (and children) in a distant land, in a voice that cracked with emotion and a heart that pulsed with pain. In a way that none of the rest of us could, they understood his words: “I feel so helpless” and “I cannot get the images of the children out of my head” and “I can’t sleep at night” and “I see nothing but pain and darkness ahead of me.”

As the rest of the class sat in silent witness to this interchange, each of the three American soldiers listened to this “brother” who they never knew they had. And then one by one they spoke their words of support:

Photo 1

 

“It will get better, brother.”
“People like us carry the wounds with us. This is the poison that we were chosen to take but slowly we learn how to live with it.”
“I know exactly what you feel.”
“You have to keep talking about this. It will get better each time you get it off your chest.”
“It will take some time but you will pull out of this and smile again.”
“We understand. It’s okay.”

They met him where he was and where he needed to be met.

And as he wiped away a tear that fell down his cheek, one former U.S. Marine took the microphone and said emphatically, “IT WILL GET BETTER. YOU WILL BE OKAY.”

And I knew that he would be.

If someone had asked me before class what I wanted to have happen, this is not at all what would have come to mind. I would not have used the word “healing” or ‘brotherhood,” and I would not have imagined that three men staring into the tiny hole of a video camera would touch the heart of another man a half a world away. And I would not have imagined one of them writing to me two days later saying that the experience “changed his world.” But it happened.

And it happened, I suppose, because my students help me to continually re-envision the classroom as a place where “everything is possible” and not where “something is inevitable.” These men reached through a video camera and gave each other a gift because they were given the opportunity to do so.

Photo 2

And they gave the rest of us a gift because they reminded everyone else in that room that veterans, whether from the United States or other countries, even our so-called enemies, often carry within themselves the “heart of darkness” — and with it the deep painful knowledge that they are living in a world that is no longer what it once was for them.

But perhaps the greatest gift given out that day was to all of the students who will sit in that classroom in future semesters. Because these four young men opened up in front of a room full of over 700 strangers, the “cathedral” will forever be a different space for me. In it I will remain committed to fully open to myself and share with students the healing power of empathy and insight. And I will always reach for the possible.

And so it is me that says the final “Thanks.”

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Dr. Sam Richards and Dr. Laurie Mulvey, directors at World in Conversation Center in the College of the Liberal Arts, have been invited to speak at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) taking place November 4-6 in Doha, Qatar. This annual summit was established by the Qatar Foundation and focuses on innovating global education and this year’s theme is “Imagine – Create – Learn: Creativity at the Heart of Education.” More than 1,500 delegates will gather from around the world to exchange insights and form collaborative partnerships toward solutions in education.

 

Dr. Mulvey attended the conference last year and facilitated a live, real-time video dialogue between Penn State students at University Park and students in the Middle East in front of a hall filled with WISE delegates. This year she will facilitate several more live video dialogues between students who are attending the WISE conference and students in other locations throughout the Middle East and Europe.

 

As an advocate of innovations in education and its increasingly global scope, Dr. Mulvey said that she believes that the Center and WISE conference  share similar goals, and that to have an impact, education “needs to leave a legacy by giving each student real tools to navigate the world they are inheriting. Education is most powerful when it accesses the whole person and invites them to consider the perspectives of other whole people.”

 

Alternately, Dr. Richards will be speaking on a separate panel highlighting logistical obstacles when administering international programming in conflict zones. He will highlight the dialogues that World in Conversation has between Penn State students and students in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Northern Iraq/Kurdistan, Egypt, Gaza, and Israel.

 

Overall, the World in Conversation Center’s contribution to WISE will be to showcase the innovative use of cross-cultural video dialogue as a powerful pedagogical tool for deepening a student’s understanding of the world and themselves.

 

“At World in Conversation we use video conferencing technology in ways that benefit Penn State students, while also benefiting young people in areas of the world where simply attending school is a privilege,” says Dr. Richards.


For more information about the WISE Annual Conference and World In Conversation (Follow us on twitter: @WorldinConvo).

 

 

sam & laurie doha press release pic

 

Posted by & filed under Staff Insights.

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Its March of my senior year at Penn State University and the inevitable “what to do next?” question is banging on the door and is sure to give way in about two months. I felt the pressure, I knew I needed to find answers to that question. As I have approached most of my life decisions – as minor as they might have been up until then – I kept my heart and soul open for the opportunity that felt right, something that would fill my life with meaning.

I have always said I would never do anything, in terms of studies and career, that would offer little more than monetary gain without offering value to others. The pressure of graduating in under two months was putting this moral position to the test.  I am sure many of my fellow ambitious Penn State seniors have faced the following dilemma at some point; do I settle for a job at some financial institution which I know would pay me well and offer a level of financial and career stability? Or do I instead take the risk of chasing my ambitions to make a difference in my world, despite having no clue what that career path would look like?

For many years I had been interested in doing something in the realm of education as a path to achieve some of my ambitions. I was an undergraduate student studying Community, Environment, and Development (CED). This meant that I spent a great deal of time dabbling in social issues across the world, and thinking of ways to make life better for others. As I explored these issues, due to my Arab Identity I naturally gravitated towards issues concerning the Arab world.

The “opportunity” came after class one day in Soc 119 when professor Sam Richards came up to me and in typical Sam fashion and asked me, “Hey bro, you are fluent in Arabic and English correct?” (A bit of information he knew from previous conversations with me). To which I replied in the affirmative. He then asked if I would be interested in helping to translate pilot dialogues between between Penn State students and Arab students. The dialogues were aimed at developing a greater understanding between the two groups. Taken by surprise at the proposition, I replied with a huge gush of excitement; “absolutely!”  I was excited because it felt like a coming together of many worlds: my Penn State world, my studies, my career ambitions, and my roots all coming together for a positive goal of an innovative educational experience.

Those pilot conversations left me with more hunger than satisfaction. To be clear; they more than met my already high expectations for the job, and replenished my soul with the much needed nutrients that It was begging for. I felt deep within me that this could be the opportunity I had been waiting for. There was room for developing these dialogues into a full fledged program. As my connection to World in Conversation grew, I thought to myself that I needed to do more; there was more I could offer to this organization and vice versa. So I decided purely on my gut that I would stick around in State College and try to develop this program at World in Conversation. This decision made for an interesting conversation with my father, who was eventually convinced after he was able to see the passion and conviction behind my decision.

I asked WinC what they needed to see from me in order to be included as part of the development of their programs.That summer I worked with professor and Executive Director of the Center Laurie Mulvey and facilitation coach Sheffy Minnick to learn how to facilitate dialogue. I reached out extensively to my contacts at home to find collaboration opportunities with World in Conversation. I officially began facilitating the Fall semester of 2011 when I worked on staff to develop the Western Middle Eastern Exchange program at the Center. However this was seen as a trial period, and it was not until the Spring semester of 2012 that I finally became a full time employee for WinC.

Fast forward three and half years I am now a co-manager of the Global Dialogues program at the Center, and I have never regretted my decision to seek employment with WinC immediately after graduating from Penn State. Working with this program has opened up many opportunities for dialogue between American students and Arab students on campus and across the world. For three years it was my responsibility to make these programs happen; from coordinating the conversations to facilitating them.

Not only have I been deeply engaged in enlightening conversations which have granted both myself and the participants insight into perspectives we would not have otherwise, but the plethora of topics covered in those dialogues had a broad scope: they ranged from civility to cultural practices, and even delved into safety and family structures. They examined our relationships to one another on a human and personal level. They included exploring what our civic responsibility is, and what it means to accept one anothers’ differences. These topics, however, were explored from a place of neutral curiosity. This position really was the magic in all of this work and what allowed myself and others to navigate conflict in a positive and constructive manner.

Looking back at it now I guess my decision to stay and help build a program was quite radical. Rather than choosing the more stable option and going with a well defined job and an already established program, I trusted my intuition. I now understand how profound that is in its simplicity.

No matter where I go after my time at WinC comes to an end, there is no doubt that I will be adequately equipped to take on new challenges thanks to my experience at the center. I will forever be reminded to keep my soul open to listening to those opportunities, and seize them with conviction.


With love,
Karim.B

 

Posted by & filed under Student Contributors.

Editor’s Note: Jenny Tato is a Dialogue Facilitator working with us this semester who was dedicated enough to make the trip to NYC recently for the People’s Climate March. We asked her to share her experience as we believe conversation – and the call for it – can take myriad shapes and forms. Shout out to everyone who attended the march. Stories like Jenny’s (along with countless others) and the incredible turnout for the event continue to inspire us to create conversations that matter around climate change!

JennyTI woke up at 3am early Sunday Morning, sleepy-eyed, running on only couple of hours of sleep. I combed over my messy hair, got dressed really fast and packed a small backpack with water, a sweatshirt and my wallet. Half asleep, I mounted my bike to go to the bus stop. I got to the bus stop, climbed onto the bus and sat next to a friend. I looked up to the front of the bus as one of the leaders of Fossil Free PSU greeted us with excitement, “Alright, everyone! In five hours we will be in New York City marching for climate change! Here we go!” I smiled as everyone hooted and hollered with excitement.

I must have quickly fallen asleep again, because soon after I woke up to the familiar sight of New York City. As we drove to the block where the march would begin, I was immediately awake and filled with anticipation. Here I was: I had the chance have my voice heard about the things I care the most about; climate change, sustainability, food production, and human rights. Better yet, here I was at a place where I would meet others who care just as much as I do about these issues, so much so that we all came to one place to march and speak out about them together.

I heard from many people that this was going to be the biggest social demonstration on climate change in history. However, nothing could have prepared me for the image of hundreds of thousands of people in one place, marching for change. I could try to describe every moment from getting off the bus stop until we got to our place in the march, but there would be no description that would be able to translate the feeling of home that overcame me as I walked among people who truly care about the future of humans and earth.

Signs that were held and displayed all throughout the crowds of people were by far the craziest details of the march. People in advertising would have been all over that shit. It was like there was a competition to see who could reach out in the most creative way to someone who couldn’t care less about climate change and force them to care by writing a small, yet powerful statement on a recycled cardboard pizza box. People from all over the world came to this march. The colors of the world were there and everyone embraced each other with peace, love and kindness. The LGBT community, Indigenous peoples, or college students; you name it and I bet they were there.

Once my group got to the part of the march for people in education designated as “the future” section, we all realized how many people were truly a part of the march. We couldn’t even see the street anymore, just the tops of people’s heads, their signs and flags. Helicopters passed by overhead and the energy of the crowd started to buzz from excitement and anticipation for the march to begin. Here it was; the moment to show how much we truly care because for us we know the time is here. The time for action is now. The people are speaking out and we could not be ignored. People made up chants that other would catch on to incredibly fast and soon strangers next to me became a friend with a common love for our planet and one voice shouting out the need to protect it.

The march begun and then it ended. It was one of the most exhausting days of my life. I screamed, stood, walked, chanted and held up signs for over seven hours. Running off of only a couple of hours of sleep it was truly one big delirious mess. All of these things happened but its not what stands out for me on that day. The one thing I will always remember is the moment of silence. At 12:58pm we were told that we were going to have a moment of silence for all of those who had lost their lives or had been affected in some way by climate change. This silence was to last two minutes and then it was to be followed by our shouts. Raising our voices to the world in hopes that people will realize climate change is happening, it’s real, it’s here, and now that you’ve heard our voices: if you choose to not respond then you’ve ignored not just us but yourselves – and the world now knows.

The silence didn’t last anywhere near two minutes (or so my watch said) but I don’t even remember how long it did last because at that moment, 12:58pm, it seemed like the whole world went quiet to grieve and time didn’t exist for me anymore. In that moment all I could hear were the birds and it was as if they knew we were fighting for them as our silence soothed them and asked them to hold on. 12:58pm. Our hands went up in the air and 400,000 people went quiet. Like I said, I know I can’t expect anyone to fathom that number or understand what that could possibly feel like because I am having a hard time believing it happened myself.

Four. Hundred. Thousand.

That number will stick with me forever and so will that silence. To me, the silence spoke more than our shouts that followed soon thereafter. It started from the back of the march as a faint heavy prolonged breath and then it made its way to the front of the march where we were in a matter of seconds, like a flood that couldn’t be stopped. The dull vibration of shouts and the wave it sent to the front of the march made the hairs on the back of my neck stand out and chills took over my body. I have never felt so in tune and connected with so many people in a short amount of time. Our voices became one and just like that, we were heard.

 

Posted by & filed under From the Director, Staff Insights.

LauriePhotoForBlogWe regularly hear about the varied ways World in  Conversation alumni apply the skills and knowledge they acquired during their time at the Center to their life in the paid-for-work world.  By contrast, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of “people operations” at Google, points out the less-than-seamless fit between university learning and the needs of the paid-for-work world. In his words:

“G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless…We found that they don’t predict anything…I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

How to Get a Job at Google, NY Times, February 22, 2014

That’s a harsh critique for those of us who are university teachers. But I must admit, I often wonder about the way tests and textbooks directly influence the readiness of a graduate to seek employment–especially because I notice a rampant lack of inspiration for classes and the work of academic learning among college students in general. So Mr. Bock’s observations challenged me to think more fully about what we are doing at World in Conversation because I have the impression that we are bridging that gap between worlds for students who are facilitators-in-training.

Simply, I think our classes provide an opportunity for undergraduates to gain skills. In particular, they often achieve advanced communication and negotiation abilities that apparently correlate well with the many ways they are working with people in their jobs. And we’ve heard from those who are managers leading teams and solving problems with employees, doctors and nurse practitioner who are better able to seek more private health information from patients, entrepreneurs who have acquired a unique ability to build trust with potential clients and even police officers who can assess and address potential threats with more options than force.

I think this positive correlation stems from the fact that our learning methods and measures are very different from traditional models.  For our purposes, GPAs and test scores and figuring out the right answer are truly “useless,” as Mr. Bock points out. We actually cannot teach in a way that values a right answer because there is no single answer when executing effective communication strategies and leading dialogues.

Further, we offer to facilitators-in-training the tools and the practice in exploring ideas–because that is what they are employed to do. As a result, they learn to build connections between ideologically oppositional perspectives (and people), and to problem-solve on their feet.

That’s key. Problem-solving on their feet. For example, when group members decide that they are not interested in having the conversation that the facilitators are prepared to lead (which does happen), what does the facilitator do? Well, they definitely don’t walk away in defeat because we didn’t cover that chapter in their study session. They stay. They face the situation that they don’t think they have the skills to face. They use what they do know and, very often, they discover creative capacities that they didn’t know were there. And even better, they are better prepared for the next time they get thrown a curve ball. And even if they “fail,” they have learned what they need to learn–and they see the value of learning it.

This is the essence of how education works at World in Conversation–because it has to.

Sure, there is a set of basic communication skills that can be “taught. “ But once those are combined with the infinite number of possibilities that occur when we mix together people, personalities, contentious subjects, personal histories, emotions and limited abilities to communicate the most difficult things about ourselves, the decisions of a facilitator are a lot more like art than science, a lot more like life than a university classroom.

Being willing to learn in this more risky way sometimes feels like being a little human standing with a tiny shield before a fire-breathing dragon. But our students do it. And they do it well. And they lead conversations day after day, night after night. And they thrive–and become more and more skilled at managing the myriad situations that come to them unexpectedly, situations that we could never predict. And they become more prepared to take on bigger challenges.

 

I have a suspicion that Mr. Bock would love to hire graduates of Penn State who have trained with World in Conversation.

 

 

Posted by & filed under Thought Blog.

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As a Black man in America I experience many things differently than other races. Everyday I experience challenges to my identity.

One that has recently been weighing heavily on my mind, as it has been on many others, is the events concerning Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The loss of Mike Brown makes it undeniably clear that my life as a black male in America is considered less valuable than those of all other races. One could argue that this idea is more than irrational, but the event in Ferguson is far beyond an isolated incident. So how else should I interpret the fact that the same story continuously repeats itself?

Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York police office for allegedly selling cigarettes. Marlene Pinnock was brutally beat almost to the point of death on the side of a highway because an officer said she was she was endangering herself for walking on an interstate. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida because a vigilante citizen, not even a police officer, felt that he was a potential threat to the community. Dante Parker was essentially tased to death in California because he was apparently near a bicycle in an area where a thief was reported to flee by bike. Even Rodney King, years ago who was in fact driving under the influence and tried to outrun the police, was met by five police officers who beat him within inches of his life. And now Mike Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri shot six times.

The recurring themes in these incidents are seemingly consistent: (1) The evidence is often convoluted. (2) The police officer tends to be a White male. (3) The police officer is almost never penalized to the extent of their crime. (4) There is usually a public outcry of how the events are race related. (5) The victim is usually met with an intense brutality that no person should have to experience. For instance, shooting an unarmed man six times.

All that I have previously mentioned has taught me to be overly cautious for my life because not only does it seem that my life is valued less than others, but it also seems like there are people, particularly police officers, who are willing to take it from me. Moreover, there will be very few people who will seek justice for my life. And those who will, will not receive the reception that a human life deserves.

Please don’t read this post and think that all of my concern comes from watching the news. I have had my share of first-hand experiences of being viewed as a target by law enforcement. For example, one day during my senior year in high school, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, I took a drive to see a friend with three other guys. Suddenly, we were pulled over by three police officers who approached our car with stun guns drawn, screaming to us to keep our hands visible. Apparently, we had made a left turn without using a turn signal. Before I could realize what was happening, the four of us were outside of the car getting frisked. As I stood there shaking with terror, one of the officers aggressively asked me, “Why are you shaking so much?” It was most likely because this was the first time I was being illegally searched by police officers for no apparent reason. As a young black man, who had heard “horror” stories of being profiled by the police, I was afraid that this was the moment where my future would be taken from me, that in this moment I would end up in jail or dead because the color of my skin isn’t favorable in the American society. No person, let alone a teenager, should experience a fear such as this.

All so quickly, the four of us were sitting on the concrete with no shoes, our hands visible, and our ankles crossed.We were eventually told that we matched the description of assailants charged with a robbery. But even after a witness admitted we were not the assailants and the officers realized their mistake, our pictures were still taken and our vehicle illegally searched. For an hour and a half, we had to remain seated on the ground. And in the end, we weren’t allowed to leave, but had to call our parents to come get us–even though we had done nothing wrong. On top of everything else, I was frightened by the rage that my mother would surely have when she came to pick me up. But I was met with a surprise. We exchanged very few words, but among them the most vivid was, “You need to be careful.” My entire life my mother told me to go to school, mind my own business, choose friends that won’t lead me into trouble, to do right by others, and to lead a generally moral life. But never had I thought that she would tell me to be cautious involving encounters with police officers. Police officers supposedly protect and serve, yet for me they also reflect potential to put my well being in jeopardy. Never had the asymmetry of racial dynamics in this country been so clear to me.

Since then I have multiple encounters with law. In fact, I have had enough encounters that being racially profiled no longer frightens me. I often expect that I will be looked down upon by police officers. One may call this paranoia, but I more than assure anyone that have been profiled more than enough times to say that it is no coincidence. As a Black man in America, I have been conditioned to be viewed as a threat and as the enemy. To me, that is tragic.

Posted by & filed under From the Director, Staff Insights.

Laurie MulveyI teach a class called “Social Conflict” where we examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by talking directly to individuals living in the region. On Tuesdays, we are huddled in front of a screen talking to those in the Gaza Strip; on Thursdays we are talking to those in Israel. I am always gratified by what happens when individuals have the opportunity to talk to “the other side.” Here are end-of-semester reflections from two of the Penn State students who took the class last semester–one is Jewish, the other is Palestinian. When I read their essays, I am reminded of the possibility for changing the world that exists in a real conversation.

 

 

Jewish Student Blog A) :

As the semester comes to a close, I must say this class has definitely changed the way, which I approach, not only the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict but also how I look at the world and the way in which humans view their identity, develop an attachment to their environment and the way in which humans handle adversity.
 
Identity, which is shaped throughout our lives and throughout our experiences, should evolve as we gain new insights and knowledge about the world around us. Every Tuesday and Thursday I felt that I was taking a trip abroad into another country not that I was just attending a typical class at Penn State University in Pond Lab but rather that I was in Israelor Gaza. Completely internalizing what people from across the globe had to say about their culture and national identity allowed me to partake in a conversation about the conflict that I’ve never had before.
 
Registering for the class was a last minute decision that probably would never have happened if I hadn’t heard that this class was looking for more Jewish students. Thinking about that has made me realize how completely engulfed in my Jewish identity I am and how that shapes my sense of responsibility and loyalty I feel towards “my group”.
 
Never having had the chance to hear the Palestinian narrative, this class allowed me to form an impression and a window to understanding the Palestinian perspective. I was nervous coming into this class, as I thought about how I would defend a land that I think of as my own when I really had never studied the conflict in depth before. This leads me to what Nick said today in class when he spoke about having to prove yourself to people whose culture you share and to what extent you have to know certain information or believe certain ideas before “your group” accepts you as one of them. This stuck out to me as we as a class separated ourselves from our “side” in order to fully participate in discussion and dialogue and work towards understanding our biases and appreciating what the opposing side had to say despite our own personal beliefs. I was relieved that this class required listening more so than the need to be able to defend or argue against “the other side” and therefore provided a safe way to learn more about the conflict and the people who are involved.
 
The benefit I have found in taking on different perspectives is that for me personally it has allowed me to develop my own opinions based on first hand information from what I have heard in class and Skype sessions with people in Gaza and Israel. I no longer rely solely based on what I have been told by my peers throughout my life to understand the conflict as I have never been given a more complete picture of what is occurring in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict until this class. Although it is harder and arguably a longer process to take the time to get to know people on a human level, in reality, I believe this is the most beneficial way to resolve conflict. When you know a person and the different facets of that person, as Josh used the metaphor of “separate ID cards, which show the face of the same person, only representing a different aspect of that person” dialogue becomes more meaningful as your not just talking to a “side” your talking to a real human being who has had their own experiences which have shaped that person and formed their background and why they believe the things that they do.
 
Leaving this class I will take with me the ability to question everything, internalize other peoples emotions as valid even if I do not agree, and to take the time to understand my own biases and formulate my own opinions based on experiences rather than preconceived ideas of what I believe to be true.

 
Palestinian Student Blog B):

Too often we walk through life dead, doing what we are supposed to do, thinking the way were supposed to and maintaining the routine taught by our fathers, and their fathers before them and so in. We live the life that society teaches us to live, we are aligned with the people we are meant to be friends with, and enemies with people we are meant to hate. It becomes a complicated practice, when you step back, when you realize that you are in fact a dead. That you have moved through your life, thinking you knew everything when in reality you knew nothing. We cling to assurance, like a child clings to his fathers hand, we cling to the concrete and the certain. When in reality it is known that nothing is certain and nothing is predictable, we are incapable of predicting the future because it goes where it wants and we have no choice but to follow. We have no choice but to adapt. Isn’t this the story and the beauty of mankind? It is our ability to make do with the circumstances that we are given that makes us truly human. It is our attachment to predictability when there is none, it is our hope that life will get better when it might not, and it is our capability of living when everything around us death.
 
This is how people live through bombs, wars and destruction. This is why people who live in the deadliest places still live, still maintain a culture, a way of life we assume is missing. Because how can someone live like that? How can someone be so content with knowing he may not live the next day, he may not see the sunrise, or his daughter clinging on to him for strength? Is it not beautiful to understand this means acceptance of death, of mortality, and yet his capability of living the fullest life? The story of humanity is the story of survival. I am Palestinian, this is how I define my identity, and this is always how I have chosen to define myself. It is so entrenched into my being, of who I am, of my identity that I know nothing else, and don’t want to know anything else. A socially constructed identity that I was handed down by my parent, by my culture and was ultimately meant to cling on to. It is this strength I placed on identity that makes me cringe, as I look back. Without exploration, without hesitation, and without questions I accepted my identity and everything that came with it. The ideals, and opinions that I was meant to have and the way I was supposed to think. Isn’t this the cost of being in a group of belonging?
 
It is the fear that we will ultimately be alone that keeps us coloring within the lines. As we remain in the boundaries society has drawn for us because of we don’t the consequence is isolation. Borders, we construct, enemies, we construct, in the name of security in the name of protection. Protection from whom? We seek protection from our enemies that could be our friends tomorrow, if we truly wished it, people probably more alike to us than we would ever like to admit. The important thing for me here is the fact that our beliefs, our enemies, and our hate are all constructed. And just like we constructed we can easily demolish, just like how we built the wall, to separate, and to justify, we can deconstruct, and join. The question then changes, it isn’t about who is right and who was wrong, who has justice on their side, and who is the oppressor. The lines are never distinctly drawn. No side is the victim forever, because the victim becomes the suicide bomber, becomes the spiteful, as he satisfies a self-fulfilling prophecy from his “enemy”. He from the beginning told him this what he was, spiteful and hateful. The victim is no longer the victim when he is the bomber of innocent children; it is then that the roles reverse. And the oppressor gets a taste of the helplessness, the victim feels constantly. He is ripped down from his throne of power. The question is how did it end up this way, and how can we go back?
 
To a time where all of this didn’t matter, where complicated layers that intersected were never present. To a time, where the sun shone on your neighbors house, as you looked at him as merely a human being feeling no need for protection, no need to hate him, or avoid him. I don’t believe, at least for right now, that humanizing alone is sufficient to going anywhere. Empathy is a step; humanization is a step, and a very important one. But if we do nothing with what we have learned, if we are not bold enough, courageous enough to step out of the borders that have defined our identity, we will remain in a never-ending cycle. To step out of our comfortable lives and be thrown into a world of reality, a reality that can’t be avoided. We build walls, barriers and we justify it by saying it is a mean of protection of security from something out there. Without having any idea whatsoever about whom this other is, nonetheless, what this other is. He is not human, he cannot be a person like me, he is barbaric, savage, and uneducated and that is why I have the right to be better than him, to oppress him, to want to hate him. This is what we are taught. We are taught to avoid reality, so that we are safe, so that we don’t have to experience the fear of rethinking everything we were taught was correct.
 
It is because we are taught to avoid the unknown to cling to uncertainty that doesn’t exist. So is it that life is uncertain, and our story is survival, and this is what makes us all human. United by this theme of never truly knowing anything, of rethinking and then thinking again, and being okay with the fact that you may truly never know anything. We are alive to feel things, to experience the reality of things, even though they may put us in the role of the oppressor, the role of the hateful, the bad guy. It may put us in situations of fear, and hate, of love and loss. But this is life, and experiencing all of these things make us alive, and our ability to feel, to hope, to dream and to be full of sorrow and confusion is what makes us human, this is our common humanity. Our attempt at trying to avoid life, to feel safe and secure all the time, is our attempt at creating an illusion, of being dead while we persuade ourselves that we are alive.