From Conn’s inception, the College has been guided by the promise of a future with ever-improving equality and social justice. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, and following a summer of unrest and police violence that has opened up the long-festering wound of racism, this commitment is as central to the College’s mission and culture today as it was more than 100 years ago.
The Agnes Gund ’60 Dialogue Project is one of the initiatives driving this commitment forward in new ways. From required seminars and dialogue sessions to civic engagement projects, faculty training and a social justice education series, the Conn community is addressing the modern challenges of racism and inequality from multiple angles.
The first phase of the Dialogue Project was originally launched with the support of a $200,000 donation from David Carliner ’82, and the initiative was later endowed with a $1 million gift by philanthropist and social justice advocate Agnes Gund ’60.
The Dialogue Project takes a comprehensive approach to facilitating intergroup dialogues by offering widespread opportunities to address difficult questions, listen to every side and gain exposure to diverse viewpoints, in a variety of settings on and off campus. The key ingredient is finding ways to ensure the dialogues are sustained, as opposed to one-off debates or isolated classroom discussions.
“Students have been deeply engaged, and there were some very uncomfortable but important moments, and even some tears, in our seminars,” said John
McKnight, dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, who co-taught Conversations on Race, a First Year Seminar offered to students that has come out of the Dialogue Project, with Audrey Zakriski, professor of psychology and director of the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy.
Doug Daniels: Can you talk about the formative stages of the Dialogue Project and how you got it off the ground?
John McKnight: We started out by introducing just the concept. Of course, dialogue should be a helpful tool in terms of thinking about equity and justice, but there’s teaching methodology that people weren’t necessarily familiar with. So we began by spending that first year making sure we provided faculty and staff with opportunities to learn how to teach people about social justice through dialogue. As usual, the Conn community stepped up right away, and faculty wanted to know how they could incorporate some of these dialogue skills into their classrooms or with the groups they advise and in other contexts. So we trained as many people as possible that first year. And we were able to do all of that thanks to the generosity of that initial seed funding from David Carliner ’82.
DD: How does this project stand out from similar programs at other institutions?
JM: A lot of colleges and universities encourage intergroup dialogue by focusing entirely on the curriculum, with a course or two to teach students basic concepts of creating inclusive, equitable communities. Other schools have cocurricular programs where students engage each other in facilitated discussions on controversial matters. Both approaches can be powerful. But we tried to design something that was more wide-ranging in terms of the kinds of things that would be included, from course requirements to seminars to the community engagement projects that create the opportunities for students to really interact with people in different contexts off-campus. So we’ve been very carefully building this program in the hope that it can be sustained for a long time.
DD: You’ve mentioned that there were some “uncomfortable” moments during that First-Year Seminar on race. Were there times when the conversations hit a wall and couldn’t move forward?
JM: We got stuck sometimes in class and had to work our way to get unstuck. That’s an essential part of the work. One of the central principles behind dialogue as an instrument of inclusivity is that it has to be sustained. The difference between a discussion or debate and a dialogue is that the dialogue is supposed to be ongoing. So when you reach an impasse or you realize that you’re at cross-purposes in terms of your ideological beliefs, you actually have to get past the impasse, which is the hardest part—and most people don’t stick around long enough to do that. The benefit of having a class environment is that you have to show up for the next class. Even if it’s awkward and you feel like you got a little stuck during that last session, you give it another try. So that’s the strength of the curricular component.
DD: The Dialogue Project will address many issues beyond race, including LGBTQIA topics and economic inequality, for example. Can you discuss the importance of having the first seminar focus on race, and why you wanted to make sure first-year students took it?
JM: We wanted students who were new to the community and were forming their impressions of the community to be having conversations centered around race. The topic of race and racism, for us, is at the core of our focus on justice and equity. It was challenging to get 16 first-year students to not only think about racism in a historical way but also to confront the ways in which each of them had been socialized [to think a certain way].
DD: What are some other ways the Dialogue Project is promoting social justice to a larger audience on campus and within the local community?
JM: We’ve been offering campus-wide opportunities for events and discussions, and we had a programming series last year that we also called Conversations on Race, which was open to the public and had very strong attendance. We’ve been intentional about partnering with The Day newspaper and the Coast Guard Academy to broaden the audience and open up the social justice and anti-racist education events, such as when Ibram X. Kendi, now the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, spoke at the Coast Guard about his New York Times bestseller How to Be an Antiracist.
DD: How have the recent protests and the racial unrest over police violence changed your thinking about the role of the Dialogue Project as an important piece of a Conn education?
JM: The events of the summer gave more people permission to engage in the conversation around race and racism, and around justice in general. I think people who have been hesitant to do so now feel like they don’t have a choice but to speak up. We also have permission to name things with greater precision now than we had before. So being able to say that systemic racism is a thing—some of us have felt comfortable saying that out loud for a long time—but being able to speak with that level of clarity and precision is a welcome change coming as a result of the events of this summer.
What we saw over the summer also added an urgency to this type of education. Dialogue is not giving people the answers; dialogue is encouraging people to stay in the conversation long enough to ask informed questions and to be open to hearing other perspectives. Through all of those processes, people will arrive at, I think, a deeper understanding, and a more complex understanding, of the issues at hand.
DD: What opportunities and programs can we expect to see coming out of the Dialogue Project over the next year?
JM: We held three equity summits last summer. We’ve created a cohort of peer facilitators who can lead small, group-facilitated dialogues on different topics. We’ll continue the social justice education series, and we’re also requiring all members of the College community to complete an online program offering foundational training around questions of diversity, equity and inclusion. This online instruction, EverFi, is meant to be just the first step in a much larger effort to promote advanced dialogue and understanding across difference.