Sustaining Dialogue Around Values, Beliefs, Meaning and Purpose in a Time of Polarization Duke students and faculty brainstorm on how to get started on the road to engaging difference

By Ruth Eckles

We know that a collaboration of diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences is critical to our collective success, but what are the specific skills we need to develop in order to communicate thoughtfully, respectfully, and inclusively with the people we don't always agree with? Duke students and faculty shared their experiences, questions and potential solutions for engaging difference in a student-centered conversation entitled Sustaining Dialogue Around Values, Beliefs, Meaning and Purpose in a Time of Polarization. David Malone, Director of Duke Service-Learning, facilitated the conversation which featured Dean of Arts and Sciences Valerie Ashby and other leaders including Brandon Hudson, Duke Alumni and Director of Durham’s Urban Hope, Jayne Ifekwunigwe from Duke’s Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, Sam Miglarese, Director of the Duke/Durham Neighborhood Partnership, and Mohamad Chamas, a Duke senior currently studying Education, Literature, and Neuroscience.

“This is a topic that is a high priority for me personally, and also for Trinity,” said Ashby, who challenged students to lean into discomfort, cultivate a sense of curiosity about other people’s point of view, eschew echo chambers, and to launch an all-out effort to intentionally engage difference.

“We learn the most from people with whom we have the least in common,” said Ashby. “I can sit around all day and pick people who would never disagree with me and we could be in that echo chamber just as joyful as can be, all day long.

"Yet with all the diversity that we have decided to bring to Duke, diversity in experience, gender, race, ethnicity, economic background; a student could navigate through Duke for four years and never have to be uncomfortable. And then my question is, why in the world would you come to Duke? What did you leave on the table if you do that?" -Dean Ashby

"A lot of times when we talk about these things, we're like "I want you to do this, this, and this differently. You. This is an internal check. If I don't change, nothing changes," said Ashby.

The following photos document students and faculty sharing their experiences, questions and potential strategies for engaging difference.

“I’m trying to be the way I want the world to be”

One participant shared that she regards “leaning in” as a daily practice, as a way of acting in alignment with her personal values, regardless of whether it’s reciprocated by others. “But I’m careful not to overtax myself either. When I can’t do it, I can’t do it," she added.

"How do you lean into people who don't want to lean back?"

A student made the observation that while the people gathered for the facilitated conversation may be predisposed to listen to others, many people she encounters have little interest in engaging difference. "So how do you lean into people who don't want to lean back?" she asked.

"At a certain point, I feel like I have to prioritize my mental health."

"I think I used to feel like I had a responsibility to be open, to educate people, to not take offense, but I’m just not convinced by that anymore. I have to prioritize my family and my culture as opposed to prioritizing someone who just doesn’t really care about my feelings or genuinely respect how I feel about the situation,” one student said.

"I pick my battles"

"I don’t respond to everything, otherwise I would be a weeping, gaping wound all the time and it’s just not productive. Sometimes it can be very helpful to wait, to meditate and think about it, and then respond. If you have the luxury and opportunity to wait, sleep on it. And if you wake up the next morning thinking about it, find a productive way to engage that person." -Jayne Ifekwunigwe, Duke’s Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation

From right to left: Dean Valerie Ashby, Jayne Ifekwunigwe, and Brandon Hudson.

"Tell me a story"

“One thing I’ve really found helpful is to start a conversation with 'Tell me a story, help me understand how you got to this point.' It helps humanize the person.” -Joshua Lazard (MDiv), C. Eric Lincoln Minister for Student Engagement, Duke University Chapel

"Listen to understand, not to respond"

“One thing I’ve been working on is to listen to understand, not to respond. We’re trained to fight and defend our opinions. And even though that fits in the classroom, maybe it doesn’t really fit that well in real life.” -Duke student

"There’s nothing tying us together, like a common purpose."

"It’s much easier to talk with the people you’re going through the same things with. Not to say it has to be a sport, but maybe an organization. We’re all here at Duke, and we’re a diverse group, but there’s nothing tying us together, like a common purpose.” -Duke student

"We need the sense that we need each other"

“Higher education has the challenge of figuring out what makes a student body look at itself like members of a body? We need the sense that we need each other. Otherwise there’s really no need for me to engage in difficult conversations with you if I don’t feel like I need you as a person.” -Brandon Hudson, Director of Durham’s Urban Hope, 2006 graduate of Duke University (BA in African/African-American Studies & English) and a 2013 graduate of Duke Divinity School (MDiv)

Photo caption: Brandon Hudson greets Jayne Ifekwunigwe

Given Duke's ambitiously driven campus culture, how do we find time for authentic conversations?

"At Duke we’re so over scheduled, trying to do the next thing, trying to get to the next level," one student lamented. "We’re all trying to selfishly get something out of our college experience and not taking the time to see ‘how can I serve?’ or ‘how can I serve in this situation?’ or ‘how can I serve in this conversation?’"

“There’s a lot of competition, a lot of goal-setting, but a lot of it excludes the deep relationship building that needs to happen. I feel like we all really need to be more servant-minded, but obviously that takes a lot of individual effort on our parts,” she added.
Sam Milgarese, Director of the Duke/Durham Neighborhood Partnership, seated next to Duke senior, Mohamad Chamas. "Having the courage to begin a conversation can lead to change--real change," said Milgarese, who has seen first-hand how conversations with students led to social action that effected change in the Duke/Durham community.
From left to right: Dean Valerie Ashby (left) shares a laugh with Jayne Ifekwunigwe, David Malone and Brandon Hudson. "You will never lose by being your real authentic self. There’s something about showing up honestly for yourself, while also allowing someone else to show up honestly and allowing space to just be. It’s a good thing. And you guys just practiced this today, beautifully.” -Dean Ashby

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