3. Conducting an Effective Community Dialogue on Race

The racial dialogue has four phases.

The dialogue design presented here contains four phases that have proven useful in moving participants through a natural process from sharing individual experiences to gaining a deeper understanding of those experiences to committing to collective action. Whether meeting for one dialogue session or a series of sessions, participants move through all four phases, exploring and building on shared experiences. The first phase sets the tone and explores the question Who Are We? through the sharing of personal stories. The second phase helps participants understand Where Are We? through a deeper exploration of personal and shared racial history in the community During the third phase, participants develop a vision for the community, in response to the question Where Do We Want To Be? In the fourth phase, participants answer the question, What Will We Do As Individuals and With Others To Make A Difference? Often, they discover shared interests and start working together on specific projects.

Note: Throughout this section, a sample script for the dialogue leader is noted in italics. A one page overview of a sample small group dialogue is offered in Appendix A. Many dialogue leaders will want to read through the suggested questions in this section, then develop questions tailor ed to the needs of their particular groups. If your group is composed of people who are experienced discussing complex racial issues with each other, the quotes in Appendix A may be useful to quickly articulate a range of perspectives about race and to stimulate discussion. A set of additional questions for each of the four dialogue phases can be found in Appendix B.

You are ready to begin the dialogue.

Phase I: Who Are We?

This phase sets the tone and context for the dialogue, which begins with the sharing of personal stories and experiences. In addition to serving an ice-breaking function, this kind of personal sharing helps to level the playing field among participants and improve their understanding by hearing each others' experiences.

Welcome, Introduction and Overview
(Suggested time-15 minutes)

It's not always easy to talk about race relations. A commitment to the dialogue process---open, thoughtful, focused---will help us make progress. Your presence here shows you want to help improve race relations in this community, and just being here is an important step.

  • Explain the purpose of the dialogue and the several phases involved.
  • Discuss, clarify, and set ground rules (see page 15).
  • Ask people to briefly introduce themselves.
  • Give an overview of the session.
  • Describe your role as dialogue leader (see page 15).

    Starting the Dialogue

    Often the most difficult part of talking about race is getting started. People may feel uncomfortable at first and hesitant about expressing their personal beliefs. To get people talking, it may help to relate personal stories or anecdotes, or to bring up a race-related incident that has occurred within the community.

    Let's begin by looking at the first question: Who Are We? By listening to one another's personal stories, we can gain insights into our own beliefs and those of others, and come to new understandings of the issues we face. By sharing our personal experiences, we can learn more about each other as individuals and about how we have been influenced by our racial and/or ethnic origins. We can also shed light on our different perceptions and understandings of race relations.

    Begin with questions that allow people to talk about their own lives and what is important to them. Don't focus on race at first. Give people a chance just to get to know each other as individuals and to find out what they have in common. Examples of questions to use include--

    • How long have you lived in this community?
    • Where did you live before moving here?
    • What are some of your personal interests?
    • What things in life are most important to you?

    Note to dialogue leader: For groups of 15 people or fewer, keep everyone together. Groups of more than 15 people should be separated into smaller groups (3 to 5 people) for a few minutes, then brought back together.

    Explore how race affects us on a day-today basis. Examples of questions to use include-

    • What is your racial, ethnic and/or cultural background?
    • Did you grow up mostly around people similar to you?
    • What are some of your earliest memories of coming in contact with people different from you?

    Summarize the session at meeting's end.

    Evaluate the meeting. Ask such questions as-

    • How did you feel about this meeting?
    • Is there anything you would like to change?

    Bring the meeting to an end and defuse any tensions. You might say, Thank you for coming. Any final thoughts? Next week, we will ...

    Transition to Phase II: In preparation for the next meeting, think about the following questions: When it comes to race, what problems are we facing? What are the most serious challenges facing our community, and what are the community's greatest strengths for dealing with those challenges?

    Phase II: Where Are We?

    This phase explores questions that highlight our different experiences and different perceptions about the kinds of problems our society is facing with regard to race. This phase is about people expressing their different understandings about race, then exploring the underlying conditions producing them. It centers on the idea that it makes sense to talk about what we are facing before we talk about solutions. By the end of this phase, participants should have identified the themes, issues, and problems in their community.

    Let's turn now to our second question: Where Are We? The purpose of this section is to look at our current experiences of race and ethnicity and to discuss the state of race relations in our community. Since this is the part where we really get down to business as far as identifying the underlying causes of any racial issues in our community, the discussion may get a little heated at times. It is okay to feel uncomfortable, as that is part of the difficult process of making change.

    Begin with questions that get people to talk about their current experiences with race relations. Examples include-

    • How much and what type of contact do you have with people of other races or groups?
    • Is it easier or harder than it was a few years ago to make friends of other races? Why is that so?

    Note to dialogue leader: Be prepared for the level of the conversation to intensify during this phase. Remember to reassure participants that it is okay to feel agitated or uncomfortable, reminding them of the ground rules when necessary (see Section 4, "The Role of the Dialogue Leader," for more tips.)

    Focus the dialogue on the state of race relations in the community Questions to help get started include-

  • How would you describe the overall state of race relations in our community?
  • What are some of the underlying conditions affecting race relations in our community?
  • In what ways do we agree and/or disagree about the nature of our racial problems, what caused them, and how serious they are?

    Summarize the session, evaluate it, and bring the meeting to an end.

    Transition to Phase III: In preparation for the next session, think about the following questions: What can we do to make progress in our community? When it comes to strategies to improve race relations and to eliminate racism, what sorts of proposals do you know about? Try to identify a broad range of possibilities. What are the pros and cons of the various approaches? When it comes to race, what direction should our public policies take? What goals and values should shape our policies?

    Phase III: Where Do We Want To Go?

    The goal of this phase is to move away from the "me" and get people to think and talk about possible directions for change. In this segment, participants begin to build their collective vision. They first identify what would be a part of that vision and then "brainstorm" about how they could all help to build it (suggest "we" statements be used). By the end of this session, participants should have identified accomplishments, barriers to overcome, and opportunities for further action.

    Let's turn our attention to the question, Where Do We Want To Go? We share a common desire to improve race relations so let's talk about what we mean by that and explore specific things we might do to achieve that goal.

    Have participants talk about their vision of what they would like to see in the community. You could ask questions such as

    • How would you answer the question of where we want to go in race relations?
    • If we had excellent race relations, what kinds of things would we see in the community? Hear in the community? Feel?

    Help participants to build their future vision. Ask questions like-

  • What are the main changes that need to happen to increase understanding and cooperative action across racial lines?
  • What are some of the helping /hindering forces in our community?

    Note to dialogue leader: The heart of the session is generating a range of viewpoints on how our society and community might address and make progress on race relations. As you sift through the views, remember to give a fair hearing to the ideas that come up.

    Turn the dialogue to the question of what individuals can do towards improving race relations. Ask questions like-

    • What things have you seen that give you hope for improved race relations?
    • What are some steps we could take to improve race relations in our neighborhood? In our workplace? In our organizations? In our schools? In our community?

    Explore the roles that the community's institutions and government play in helping race relations. How could they do a better job?

    Summarize the session, evaluate it, and bring the meeting to an end.

    Transition to Phase IV: I hope that you all have begun to have a vision of what this community could look like if the positive changes we've discussed were to actually take place. When we come back together next session, we will be talking about what we can do as individuals and with others to really make a difference. For the next session, think about these questions: What kinds of concrete steps can you take in your everyday life-by yourself and with others-to improve race relations in the community? What do you think is most needed in this community?

    Phase IV: What Will We Do, As Individuals and With Others, To Make a Difference?

    The purpose of this session is to begin a productive conversation on specific actions that individuals will take, by themselves or with others, to make a difference in their communities. This session presents a range of concrete actions for change.

    While the racial issues we are facing in our communities sometimes seem overwhelming, it is possible to make a difference. By participating in this dialogue, you have already crossed the racial divide looking for better understanding and strategies that work. The purpose of this session is to draw out ideas for steps we can take-as individuals, in groups, and as a whole community-to face the challenge of race-related issues.

    Try to get participants to move from words to actions. Ask questions like--

    • What is each of us personally willing to do to make a difference?
    • How can you connect with others who share your concerns?
    • Should we continue and expand this dialogue, get more people involved? How could we do that?
    • Are there other issues and concerns that we should address using dialogues?
    • What will we do to ensure follow-up?

    Brainstorm action ideas with participants, recording their responses on a flip chart. Share any follow-up plans.

    Summarize the session, evaluate it, and bring the meeting to an end.

    Pass out an evaluation form (see Section 2, page 9, for possible questions).

  • Back to One