2. Getting Started-Steps in Organizing a Dialogue

Below are some basic questions and possible answers to help you think about organizing a dialogue on race. They are meant to be a starting place. Answering these questions will help you better understand the purpose and potential of your effort. You may wish to use the worksheet following these lists to sketch a profile of your own community More detailed steps follow these "brainstorming" questions.

Think about your community. What's going on in our community that a dialogue on race could address?
Some possibilities

  • There are people of different racial groups in my neighborhood that I would like to know better.
  • There is a race-related issue in my community that people need to talk about.
  • People of different races live and work on opposite sides of town.
  • There are young people from diverse racial and ethnic groups who could benefit from sharing their experiences.
  • I would like to get the community to come together to tackle a common problem.
  • The time is ripe for change, people are ready to do something positive.
  • The "face" of the community is changing, and people need to acknowledge and understand the changes in a more constructive light.

Think about your goals.

If there were a dialogue on race here, what would be its goals?

Some possibilities

  • To improve our neighborhood by building bridges across racial lines.
  • To build new relationships.
  • To bring people together who do not typically talk to one another.
  • To bring our kids together to reduce the chance of violence.
  • To influence attitudes of local law enforcement.
  • To better understand other cultures.
  • To open up new economic possibilities.
  • To create bonds between organizations that do not usually work together.
  • To work on a community project together, such as building a playground.
  • To build partnerships across jurisdictional lines.

Think about who should be included.

Who should be in the dialogue?
Some possibilities

  • My neighbors.
  • Members of my and other religious communities.
  • The school community-parents, teachers, administrators, and students.
  • Police and community members.
  • Business owners.
  • Elected officials and community leaders.

Think about what format to use.

What type of discussion should we have?
Some possibilities

  • A few small groups meeting once or twice.
  • A large public meeting with panelists and questions from the audience.
  • A series of small groups from across the community meeting for six weeks or more, concluding with a large meeting.
  • A year-long commitment among a group of key community leaders to study, reflect on, and discuss race relations.
  • School projects aimed at understanding cultural differences, concluding with a multicultural potluck dinner.
  • Study groups meeting from racially diverse congregations, concluding with a joint worship service.

Worksheet to Create Your Own
Community Profile

1. What's going on in our community that a dialogue on race would address?

2. If there were a dialogue on race here, what would be its goals?

3. Who should be in the dialogue?

4. What format should we use?

Now make some choices.

You don't have to be an expert to have an honest conversation about race. But as someone who is considering organizing a dialogue, you do have several choices ranging from the very simple to the somewhat complex. At the simple end, you can gather together a small group of friends, neighbors, or schoolmates to talk informally about race. This approach can be a constructive beginning, but will likely not produce much long-term community or institutional change. Another option is to pair existing community groups for a dialogue on race. This approach can have a larger effect on the community, depending on the groups involved. You could also create new groups from your community and bring them together for conversations on race aimed at community change. Whatever your approach, for a lasting impact on the larger community, it is a good idea to think about how you will sustain the project before you begin.

Dialogue may start at many levels and in many ways. While the guidance provided below can be adapted for the small "ad-hoc" gathering, it is generally intended for a larger effort (see figure below). The resource directory in Appendix C is a good place to locate help in organizing a dialogue on race. You should now be ready to tackle the following questions.

1. Who should be involved?

Form a planning group. If you are organizing an informal dialogue with friends, neighbors, or co-workers, for example, then the planning group may consist of just you and one or two others. However, if you are planning a more ambitious effort, then you will want to have a planning group of six or eight people who represent different backgrounds, professions, and viewpoints. Once you've assembled the group together, discuss your approach. You will need to spend enough time together to build a level of trust. This group will be the nucleus that drives the process and should "model" the kind of relationships and openness that you hope to see in the overall effort. Meeting in each other's homes can be a great way to get to know one another.

Look for other groups with which to partner. Having good partners is important for long-term success. Look for people who are already working to improve race relations and who have experiences to share. Good partners may be able to provide useful information and organizational resources. You will greatly increase your outreach to the community as well. Groups from different racial, ethnic, or religious communities can make good partners and offer networking possibilities. Such groups may include religious leaders, law enforcement, small business owners, elected officials, and various nonprofit organizations.

2. What's Happening in My Community?

Think about the needs of your community. Take an inventory What problems do you see in the community that are related to race and ethnicity? What are the critical issues? If things are really going to change, who needs to be part of the dialogue? Who are the individuals or groups not talking to each other? What role do language barriers play in groups not talking to each other? Are there people who should be allies, who may be doing similar work, but who are competing rather than working together? What are some of the consequences of racial divisions?

3. What do you want to accomplish?

Develop a vision for your community. What is special about your community? What do the different neighborhoods or groups offer that is unique? Are there particular issues that need to be heard? Remember, difficulties faced honestly can become assets. And the most unlikely people may hold the key to far-reaching success.

Establish short-, medium-, and long-term goals. Racial reconciliation may not happen overnight, but it is important to set some attainable goals that the group can work towards together. Look for "hinge issues" around which coalitions may form-education, housing, public transportation, and safety, for example. Where possible, create task forces to study specific needs and to work on concrete action plans. This approach will keep key business and civic leaders at the table.

4. How many dialogues should take place and for how long?

Again, the answer to this question depends on what you want to accomplish. Dialogues can go from one session of two hours to a series of sessions lasting indefinitely For example, if your goal is simply to get people you know to come together and have a conversation about race, you may only want to do one session, perhaps in your home following a social event or community function. At the other end of the spectrum, if your goal is to create institutional change in your community, you may want to launch a series of dialogues involving broad community representation. Such an effort will require partnering with other groups in the community and seeking out support services.

5. What additional planning issues might you consider?

Recruit participants. To ensure the right balance for your group (s), you may need to consider the following: First, "Which voices need to be included?" Answering that question will ensure the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity necessary for successful dialogues. Then, "Who is missing?" That answer will steer you towards others who need to be involved. Other people to contact are those in uninvolved or unaffiliated groups who, while a visible part of the community, may be harder to reach through traditional means. Generate interest by doing the following:

  • ask civic leaders and other influential members of the community to help rally the public;
  • identify the appropriate media for the audience you are trying to reach-consider placing an announcement in a small local weekly or monthly newspaper, on a community bulletin board, or even on an electronic community bulletin board;
  • use bilingual communications;
  • post an announcement in grocery stores in the community;
  • invite yourself to various group meetings in the community to get the word out; and
  • approach local chapters of national organizations.

Consider logistics issues. These may include:

  • where to have the dialogue;
  • whether any funds need to be raised; and
  • mailing lists-often obtainable from other groups.

6. How do I/we conduct the dialogue?

The critical components include welcoming participants and having them introduce themselves; setting out the dialogue's purpose; establishing ground rules; promoting discussion through thoughtful questions, visual media, or other materials; and periodically summarizing and evaluating the dialogue (see Section 3, "Conducting an Effective Community Dialogue on Race").

7. How well did we do?

Document and evaluate the project. Keep a record of the individuals and groups who take part in the dialogues and of how well the discussions go. Include such things as number of participants, group composition (multiracial, youth, church, community, etc.), main topics discussed, how productive the discussions were, how they might have been improved, and other thoughts. This will allow you to see how attitudes and perceptions have changed and whether changes need to be made in the dialogue format. Emphasize that what participants share during the dialogue will not be attributed to them in any official record or document.

Have participants evaluate the dialogue. Depending on their goals, each group will evaluate the dialogue, whether a single session or a series, after it is over. Evaluations can be written and/or expressed verbally. You may wish to distribute a short evaluation form to elicit participant feedback and to measure the impact of the dialogue. Such a form might include questions such as the following:

  • Why did you join the group?
  • What were your expectations?
  • Were you comfortable participating in the discussion?
  • Did the dialogue give you new insights about how to improve race relations?
  • Was the dialogue climate positive and respectful?
  • Did you find the dialogue to be a valuable experience overall?
  • How might it have been improved?
  • Would you like to participate in a future session?
  • Did the experience motivate you to act differently?
  • What additional comments do you have?

8. What's the next step?

Hold an annual public event to celebrate achievements, evaluate effectiveness, and invite new participants.

Expand the team. As the dialogues develop, include representatives of all major areas (politics, different faiths, education, business, media, etc.). With them, you may want to create a statement about your community, its history, the challenges it faces today, and your collective vision for the future.

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