Published: Dec. 18, 2020 By
CU Dialogues students and facilitator

2020 was marked by a series of disruptions and ongoing injustice - COVID-19, racial uprisings, and a contentious presidential election. The need for true dialogue, to be able to speak with and listen to those from different backgrounds has never been greater. The CU Dialogues Program has been serving the campus by engaging diverse audiences in open conversation across differences since 2010. This past summer they were inundated with requests and had to shift their model on-line. 

The results are remarkable. This semester, CU Dialogues program held 35 virtual classroom dialogues and 5 virtual dialogue workshops to support staff, students, faculty, and community members. They also led three workshops in partnership with the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) on “Dialogic Practices to Foster Community in Online Teaching and Meetings,” reaching 169 faculty, staff, and graduate students.  

The classroom dialogues are facilitated conversations developed in collaboration with a faculty member and designed to be related to a course’s content. Participants are invited to share their experiences and connections to the topics, providing participants with an opportunity to listen openly and speak from their own perspectives while also challenging participants to understand why they hold a particular view. 

Those who engage in dialogue are guided by two principles: listening to understand and informed questioning. Karen Ramirez, who directs the Dialogues Program, shares that the program understands dialogue as a “designed and facilitated conversation with the goal of inviting many perspectives through story sharing and critical thinking about what is shared. She highlights that “in designing dialogue, we are attentive to how our design might ‘sit’ with participants” given that not all questions necessarily invite sharing to be felt inclusively, as some participants may be more vulnerable than others given their particular lived experiences or there may be power dynamics within the space. “There’s no simple process for knowing how a question will work for dialogue and as a facilitator, I must pay attention to my own biases. I ask for feedback on questions I am thinking about asking. As the dialogue designers, the burden for creating an equitable space must fall on us,” said Ramirez. 

Ramirez also emphasizes the emergent nature of dialogues, “This might seem to go against the idea of dialogue being ‘designed’ but remember that the design is set up to promote open sharing and listening to understand. In an actual dialogue, the content is emergent. We also have to be willing not to know the answer or learn new things in the teaching and leading process. I think of dialogue as a mindset towards how I will approach an interaction. A mindset of wanting to understand the other.” 

Senior Instructor Michele Simpson partnered with CU Dialogues to hold a classroom and community dialogue with her students from PHIL 2800: Ethical Puzzles & Moral Conflicts and members of the Frasier Meadows Retirement Community in Boulder.  Pilar Sattler-McQuillan, CU Dialogues Assistant Director, was curious about how the dialogue’s themes of isolation and loneliness, and the expendability of other people and older adults' rights, would unfold. However, the students and Frasier Meadows community members who participated were innately compassionate and interested in each other’s experiences. “This is the beauty of dialogue, it destroys the assumptions we make about things.” Simpson said the dialogue was a moment of unanticipated connection between students and residents. The dialogue focused on the theme of lost independence in the pandemic as both college students and older populations have had a lot of decisions made for them alongside restrictions on their day to day lives. “People’s willingness to go there vulnerably when they have connected and really listened to each other is part of this process and needed, especially right now. The students and residents shared what it means to have someone take away your agency, even if the reason was well intentioned.”

Simpson shared that intergenerational dialogues in her classes are not new but that they hold a new meaning in 2020 and that COVID-19 has been an urgent catalyst for these conversations.  “Imagine being in a space with 19 and 20 years olds and having folks who have experienced world wars and all kinds of upheavals and experiences in different countries they once called home. A Frasier Meadows resident would be speaking and then conclude and prompt “enough from us, we want to hear from young people.” There was a hunger on the part of both students to hear from individuals who might remind them of their own elders and hunger of the residents who participated in the dialogues to hear from another generation in a moment where we are physically apart.” In a dialogue, students and participants are seen as participants in the co-construction of knowledge, rather than as receivers of established knowledge. 

Sattler-McQuillan shares that she sees her role as showing people that these harder conversations are possible: “It’s of the utmost importance right now to prove that we CAN have these conversations; the forces that may be are trying to separate us and we have to go the opposite way.” She views dialogue as a means of creating understanding between people that might think differently about things and hold different experiences and as a means of nurturing critical thinking. “We help give people a means to advance these conversations so that they can understand each other better and learn to collaborate. We live in a world where people are different but we have to work together no matter what.” 

Another CU faculty member, Matt Burgess (Assistant Director, ENVS), participated in a CU Dialogues facilitator training last year and this semester consulted with the CU Dialogues Program in designing weekly dialogues held on political polarization. Each week Dr. Burgess has brought together faculty, community members, undergraduates, and people across the political spectrum to talk about polarization. Burgess shared that structuring conversations around the political climate worked best when in one large group then slowly dividing them into small groups. Burgess held space for all walks of life in the CU community, including some regents and a former congresswoman. 

These and other dialogue experiences from this semester are revealing how holding dialogues in a digital space can open doors for more people to be a part of these conversations, particularly in intergenerational spaces. With the deep societal issues revealed and exacerbated this year, Sattler-McQuillan shares, “Collectively, we face a lot of existential problems. How are we going to work together if we can’t talk? Our program’s business is facilitating conversations that can lead to more visibility, community and awareness and I’ve never been more grounded in this than now.” 

CU Dialogues has four areas of programming each year. They hold facilitated dialogues within the university community, offer a 3-credit undergraduate course on dialogue theory and practice, provide professional development for graduate students and faculty on dialogue as a pedagogy, and conduct research. The program is housed in CU Engage, the Center for Community Based Learning and Research based out of the School of Education.

  • You can learn more about scheduling a classroom dialogue and about the CU Dialogues program at the link below