Diversity and Democracy

Safe Zone Dialogues at the University of Alabama at Birmingham

#Since 2005, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) has made ethics and civic responsibility a student learning outcome to be targeted, along with writing and quantitative literacy, through instruction and practice across the undergraduate curriculum. UAB sees respecting and valuing diversity as one component of this learning outcome, and the university was one of twenty-six institutions to participate in the Ford Foundation's nationwide Difficult Dialogue Initiative (DDI) aimed at fostering pluralism and tolerance on university campuses.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (Photo by Steve Wood)
The University of Alabama at Birmingham(Photo by Steve Wood)

An initial two-year DDI grant supported UAB's development of freshman learning communities with themes related to racial or ethical issues, as well as workshops that fostered faculty members' ability and comfort with facilitating respectful discussions on controversial topics in the classroom. A second two-year grant allowed us to integrate difficult dialogues into cocurricular activities and events with community partners and to pilot methods for incorporating these dialogues into existing courses. One method of integration was Safe Zone Dialogues, a learning module collaboratively designed by faculty, staff, students, and community members to facilitate discussion about sexual orientation.

Curricular Contexts

Safe Zone Dialogues emerged in response to reports by UAB's Gay/Straight Student Alliance (GSSA) of proselytizing by and passive-aggressive exchanges with members of another student organization. Rosie O'Beirne, an instructor in the Department of History and Anthropology and GSSA faculty advisor, took leadership in creating the program. O'Beirne had long been concerned that class discussions about difference, whether cultural or natural, often mirrored polarizing news shows. She observed that "the most heated discussions always centered on the topic of religion and sexual orientation."

During 2008–10, UAB piloted Safe Zone Dialogues in four undergraduate courses where sexual orientation is relevant to key course concepts: Introduction to Anthropology, Introduction to Sociology, Human Sexuality, and Sexual Identity and Diversity. Students in the targeted courses were organized into discussion groups of fifteen to seventeen members, which met for two seventy-five-minute sessions spaced a week apart. Each session had a facilitator who established ground rules and guidelines for respectful dialogue, as well as two panelists from the LGBT community who shared their personal stories and responded to questions related to the challenges of being openly gay in the South. Facilitators ensured that the dialogues provided an opportunity for students to engage with different perspectives, not a forum for anyone to argue for a particular point of view.

Reflecting on the dialogues, Elizabeth Casswell, current president of GSSA, said, "Two years ago if you asked me whether one conversation could change or even open someone's mind about gay rights, I would have laughed. Serving as a panelist for the Difficult Dialogue sessions completely changed my perspective."

Pedagogical Approaches

Safe Zone Dialogues are effective because they meld multiple approaches and pedagogies that together promote active listening, honest dialogue, and civil engagement with difference.

Reinforcement of Course Concepts. Integrating the module into a course makes it more likely that students will participate. It also helps ensure that students attend all dialogue sessions with the same cohort, fostering personal interaction and a sense of responsibility for one's words. Through the dialogue module, students gain experience with course concepts like cultural relativism, which requires students to suspend judgment and evaluate a perspective within context and on its own terms. As part of a multisite DDI assessment conducted by Yale University's Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, UAB demonstrated a significant correlation between course content and students' ability to hear the perspectives of others.

Intergroup Dialogue Bantu Parliamentary Procedure. Safe Zone Dialogues combine two important elements: (1) a nonconfrontational format based on Bantu tradition that gives each participant the opportunity to express an opinion sequentially and to be heard by others without challenge, and (2) an approach adapted from the University of Michigan's Program on Intergroup Relations that explicitly rejects changing people's minds as a prime objective and uses a dual-speaker model to facilitate discussion.

Personal Storytelling. Safe Zone Dialogues use a storytelling model associated with our Safe Zone Program, a preexisting diversity initiative that trains staff and faculty on the needs of LGBT students. Student and nonstudent members of the LGBT community shared personal narratives that complicated or dispelled stereotypes or assumptions and sometimes helped non-LGBT students identify with "the other."

After hearing Casswell speak, one student declared, "I would not let people like you around my children, because you don't think what you are doing is wrong." Casswell recalls, "Hearing [this] opened the hearts of the other students. Her disrespect demonstrated exactly what LGBT individuals face on a regular basis, and several of the students were visibly moved, with tears welling up in their eyes." Such responses were less indicative of changes in attitude than evidence of students really hearing a different perspective, often for the first time. Casswell still speaks with wonder about a male African American athlete who initially expressed personal disgust for what he saw as a sinful lifestyle: "I was shocked when, a few minutes after the second (and final) session he pulled me aside. I could see pain in his face and tears in his eyes as he whispered with sudden understanding, ‘You are fighting your own civil rights movement'."

Engaging Difference Online Blog. Because classroom time for Safe Zone Dialogues was limited, we also created a blog where students could reflect, synthesize, and share what they learned in the dialogue module. As some sample journal entries indicate, these reflections provided the strongest indirect assessment of the module's potential long-term impact:

"One [of the] preconceived ideas that I had was that the people of [LGBT] communities would have nothing to do with religion because many religions really are against that lifestyle. This was dispelled because they are just like any other person and choose whether they want a certain religion [to be a part] of their lives."

"The most important piece of information that I gleaned from the dialogue was the diversity within the GLBT community. One of our panelists was an agnostic, while the other was a devout Christian. One was a political conservative, while the other was quite liberal. The two panelists couldn't even agree whether homosexuality was a genetic trait or a personal decision! As an outsider, I was expecting the GLBT community to be relatively homogenous."

Promising First Steps

Although developed in response to a particular timely and polarizing topic, Safe Zone Dialogues can be adapted to a range of social or political topics. Integrating this module into relevant existing courses is one constructive approach to tackling—although not necessarily overcoming—challenges to campus diversity and pluralism. Essential to the success of Safe Zone Dialogues is the explicit premise that the program is not agenda driven or aimed at changing people's minds. Listening to other people's perspectives on a particular topic rarely causes one to forgo one's own opinion or values, but listening and hearing can plant the seeds for possible future growth.

Marilyn Kurata is the director of Core Curriculum Enhancement. Rosie O'Beirne is an instructor in the Department of History and Anthropology. Elizabeth Casswell is a student. All are of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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