A 6-month-old student organization is building and crossing bridges, figuratively and literally, on the way to fostering a campus climate where people listen — really listen — to other people’s views and respect other people’s identities.
• Figuratively, the students are educating themselves and others about the tool of “sustained dialogue” and how it can help bridge divides among people.
• Literally, 10 members of the group crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when law enforcement officers beat back a voting rights march that attempted to cross the bridge in Selma, Ala.
This year’s jubilee bridge crossing drew tens of thousands of people — The Selma Times-Journal gave a count of 80,000.
“It was like a visual representation of this idea of why listening is so important in dialogue,” said Joanna Jaroszewska, who was among the UC Davis students who made the trip. Many of them met with Dateline UC Davis after their return, to talk about Selma and sustained dialogue.
This kind of “dialogue” has as much to do with listening as it does talking.
“Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn,” wrote Harold Saunders in his book A Public Peace Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racial and Ethnic Conflicts.
“Each (person) makes a serious effort to take others’ concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other.”
In July 2013, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi established the Office of Campus Dialogue and Deliberation, headed by Carolyn Penny, with a mission to support a culture of respectful and vigorous engagement on issues that are important to the UC Davis community, and to be an active participant in resolving group conflicts and disputes.
The student organization came later, after a UC Davis delegation attended the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network’s national conference at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., in 2014. Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter, and Student Affairs Vice Chancellor Adela de la Torre and Associate Vice Chancellor Milt Lang provided the funding for the trip, sending six undergraduates, a graduate student and two administrators to the conference to explore the dialogue tool and assess its fit for UC Davis.
They liked it, and the campus subsequently trained 18 people — mostly undergraduates — as sustained dialogue moderators. Then, around the end of 2014, Sustained Today, UC Davis is the only UC campus affiliated with the Campus Sustained Dialogue Network.Davis the student organization was officially established, with support from the Office of Campus Dialogue and Deliberation.
In March 2015, UC Davis students were off again to the national conference, this time at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa where they wore conference T-shirts emblazoned with the question, “Are You Crossing Bridges?”
The conference ran from Friday through Sunday, but the UC Davis group left a day early — bound for the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, about 75 miles away.
Fifty years earlier, others from UC Davis and the Davis community made the same journey. They traveled by bus, heeding the Rev. Martin Luther King’s call for support from around the nation in response to what happened on March 7, 1965: Bloody Sunday. Three weeks later, 8,000 people crossed the bridge under the protection of federal troops, and the march continued all the way to Montgomery, the state capital.
Fred Williams, a first-year student and a Sustained Dialogue member who made the trip to Selma, said his walking across the bridge was an acknowledgement of that fact that “there’s a lot of things we can do (today), and there were things they could not do, that were bought at a price. A price had to be paid with that, and now I get to enjoy those liberties without having to pay that price.”
Williams, an African American, had been across the Edmund Pettus Bridge before — not the real bridge, but a replica in Atlanta. He had gone there for a family reunion; he was about 7 years old. “I saw the MLK gravesite, and the bridge was in the same area,” he recalled.
“Myself, my mom, grandparents and little sister (4 years old) walked across. It was a emotional experience for the adults” — but, owing to his age, “I did not know the significance.”
“I am from Corona in SoCal, raised in a white suburb, went to a private school — and that trip was my first exposure to black history,” he said. “Although I was young, the trip left a great impact on me that prompted me to look deeper into black history.”
Then, in March 2015, he found himself walking across the real Edmund Pettus Bridge. “Walking across the bridge in Selma reminded me that the only way I can make my contribution to the lasting struggle is to take every advantage of the opportunity here at UC Davis and be excellent in everything that I do,” said Williams, who is majoring in political science and psychology.
President Barack Obama had given an address at the bridge the day before. But this Sunday was all about marching.
“For me it was very humbling,” said Vanessa Segundo, a Ph.D. student in the School of Education. “As we were going over the bridge, I stopped with the group I was in. … I was like, hey, you all, ‘I’m just going to step aside. … I need to honor the folks who are coming.’”
Jaroszewska, a third-year student who is majoring in community and regional development, also took pause. “For me it was like, maybe I need to put down my phone and not take photos for a second,” she said.
“I really need to look at … and experience this, and feel, you know … all these bodies moving. And it was very emotional for me to be a part of it, and to recognize how different it is in California and what kind of challenges we are facing in California that are different from what Selma is facing right now.”
Sustained Dialogue’s charter members say their mission “is to bring the tools of sustained dialogue to our campus so that it may create a place for dialogue for the members committed to creating positive changes in our community.”
“The group will engage in weekly, prolonged dialogue sessions led by student moderators. Through these sessions, specific campus issues will be addressed by members across the community, in order to understand the wealth of diverse perspectives that exist on our campus, transform relationships for the better and create a more peaceful campus for all.”
Would something like this have worked in Selma, during the Voting Rights Movement?
“There has to be a readiness for it,” said Penny, who leads the Office of Campus Dialogue and Deliberation and accompanied the student organization to Alabama. “Dialogue requires openness to the stories of others, and I think many privileged people, especially in the South, were not able and willing at that time to accept realities for other people. The more we have dialogue now, the more we build a community.”
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