On Friday, December 1, the Ikeda Center welcomed nearly 50 Boston-area students and young professionals for our third Dialogue Nights event of Fall 2017, this time featuring guest facilitator Ceasar McDowell, Professor of Civic Design at MIT. The evening’s theme was “The Power of Raised Voices: Do You Know More Than You Can Say?”
The topic emerged from planning discussions with Dr. McDowell that explored the desire and struggle of young people to speak up about important issues. McDowell said that, based on his experience, he thinks the main reason people are reluctant to speak up is because they fear judgment or isolation. He emphasized that in order for our democracy to survive we have no choice but to figure out how to have those conversations, both individually and on as broad a scale as possible. During our discussions, we also derived inspiration from Daisaku Ikeda’s conviction that “no matter how dire the situation may appear, we must never abandon our faith in dialogue. Dialogue is a choice that we make for peace, for life, and for humankind’s sustainable future.”
The evening began with icebreaking activities and opening words by Jason Goulah of DePaul University, executive advisor to the Center. He shared one Ikeda quote in particular that underscored the evening’s theme: “It is because our voice resonates with life, that it can touch the lives of others.” The Ikeda Center, Dr. Goulah shared, was founded with the goal of bringing people into life to life dialogue and, thereby, building cultures of peace. He invited the participants to together “seek the power of raised voices and, given contemporary difficulties and confusions, to speak to know, to be known, and to grow more fully human.”
Dr. McDowell set the stage for the evening’s dialogue by drawing attention to the fact that we are living in a society with incredible demographic complexity, thus increasing the importance of communication between groups and individuals on the issues that affect society as a whole. However, our society currently does not have a shared infrastructure to support that kind of dialogue. Most often, said McDowell, we use the image of the New England town hall meeting as a model for how dialogue in democracy should work. But that model, he said, is inadequate to our needs. This is because at heart the town hall meetings were exclusionary. Not only was participation restricted to those with a shared Christian faith and belief system; women could not participate either. Therefore, our struggle now is to create something truly new and inclusive.
As we work to create new structures, concluded McDowell, we must always be asking ourselves, “What does it take to talk to each other? What does it take to talk to people who have different values, backgrounds, and interest?” As his friend Carl Moore said, “Community exists when people who are interdependent struggle with traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them so they can realize a future that is an equitable improvement on the past.” That struggle, Dr. McDowell said, is the struggle to engage in dialogue.
With the determination to inspire courageous dialogue, Dr. McDowell facilitated a series of exercises throughout the evening. In the first exercise, he posed a question to the group, “What is a conversation that you are reluctant to have, or would have a difficult time having, with someone in your life?” The responses ranged from white privilege, to questions of abuse in the workplace, to personal matters of relationships and religion. One participant offered a truly contemporary challenge, saying that his difficult conversation was around racism and how it affects relationships and online dating. The point of this first exercise, explained McDowell, wasn’t that it’s wrong to be reluctant, but rather, that if we begin to understand the sources of our reticence, we will have taken the first step in developing our capacities for meaningful dialogue.
Next, participants gathered in small groups to dig deeper, considering why they are reluctant to have that conversation. Dr. McDowell then asked each group to explore together why it is important that they each have that conversation.
After the small group discussions, the participants came back together to share their reflections. It became clear that this wasn’t a night for the resolution of conflicts but rather, as one young man put it, a night for discovery. One young woman remarked that the exploration of why we hold back laid the groundwork for deeper and more genuine dialogue. Another participant reflected that by establishing a shared goal and topic, it provided a safe space for each member to move forward in dialogue together. Another summed up what might be a perfect mission statement for dialogue nights: “At school,” she said, “we rarely have opportunities like this to talk to our peers or friends in a meaningful, genuine way. Young people need more places to engage in dialogue around the issues they really care about.”
Dialogue Nights is continuing in 2018, with the continued goal to create a space for young people to engage in open-hearted, open-minded dialogue.