Community Dialogues: Science and Practice

–submitted by Kevin Hoffman; photo by Mike Engelberger

Steve QuintanaUW-Madison Professor Steve Quintana of the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology shared interesting and practical insights into the value of community dialogues to address issues in the community such as race, ethnicity, and nationality.

He started by discussing whether racial bias is innate or learned by studying children as young as 3-6 months.  What he found was that there is an Other Race Effect (ORE) that occurs when a child is exposed to a face from an unfamiliar race.  Through brain imaging, ORE was determined to be a neurological response such as a flight or fear response.  So, even from a young age we are conditioned to react to that which is different.

While we seem to be hard-wired to react to the “other” we are also capable of change.  We often have conflicting feelings about the implicit response of ORE versus our explicit attitudes (“I don’t see race!”).  This causes cognitive dissonance that can be handled by avoidance of the “other”, rationalization (believing in stereotypes), or by actively working to change our implicit attitudes to match our explicit attitudes.

How do we effectively promote understanding and positive values?  Professor Quintana found that the most effective methodology was through experiential learning in a structured, safe and open environment (dialogue).  This means that participants agree that all members have equal status, cooperate by listening and disclosing, have a shared goal of greater understanding, and have the support of an authority such as a government, university, military institution or neighborhood.

This is the process of community dialogue:  Listening carefully enough to be changed by what you hear.  Specifically, sharing heartfelt disclosures to engage the understanding of others, respectful listening and openness, avoidance of trying to persuade or teach, and humanizing the “other” through first-person stories and experiences.

Professor Quintana has studied and used community dialogue for reconciliation and understanding in a wide variety of situations and topics, and encouraged us to find opportunities for dialogue in Madison to engage the community in improving inter-racial understanding and connection.

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