It’s become more difficult to talk to people we disagree with in recent years. It’s been even harder to listen.
Looking through the memorabilia in the historic archives donated to Pomona College by Myrlie Evers-Williams ’68 this year makes the dignity and discipline of the nonviolent principles of the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s all the more palpable. The irony, of course, is that the reaction to the call for change was often horrifically violent. Among the photos in Evers-Williams’ belongings is one taken by her son, photographer James Van Evers, of three widows of the civil rights era: Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King and Evers-Williams. Both a defiant strength and resilience are visible in their faces and bearing. Shabazz and King even seem to smile slightly.
If they could do that, it seems we can at least talk to each other at Pomona about things like politics, faith, race and campus culture. To that end, a program on learning how to better connect has been offered at the College since 2021 through the model of the Sustained Dialogue Institute. Designed for small groups of students, faculty or staff that meet 90 minutes a week for 10 weeks, the sessions have included topics such as building a culture of inclusion, the Black experience at Pomona, queer culture and more. Theatre Professor Joyce Lu and Dean of Campus Life Josh Eisenberg also teamed to offer a class called Applied Theatre: Sustained Dialogue in Action.
“I know that it resonates,” says the coordinator of the campus effort, Christina Ciambriello, chief of staff to College President G. Gabrielle Starr and secretary to the Board of Trustees.
The program grew out of a 2017-18 task force on public dialogue established by the Board of Trustees, a 2018 Gallup survey on speech and campus climate at the College and a Mellon Foundation presidential leadership grant awarded to Starr.
Jackson Lennon ’24 has been a student leader of the effort, first taking part during the pandemic closure in a remote session about the climate around race, class and politics at Pomona that was the first dialogue group in the nation to include trustees.
“We talked a lot about the differences in culture that have evolved over time from the trustees’ time and up to the incoming students, which included me,” Lennon says.
Inspired by that, he became one of 35 to 40 people from Pomona now trained as moderators through the Sustained Dialogue Institute. But when Lennon and another student planned a series on “cancel culture” for spring 2021, they ran into the time crunch that seems to make it hardest for students to engage with the program.
“We really wanted to work that out,” Lennon says. “Unfortunately, I think the timing was just not right because our sessions were late at night, a lot of students had homework and so they couldn’t really commit.” The session ended after a few weeks.
One of Lennon’s goals is to ensure that people don’t misunderstand a liberal arts college as an entirely politically liberal community, in part because, “I actually identify as a Republican,” as he puts it. “For me, I have found it’s been very effective to talk to people as a human being rather than becoming the stereotype that a lot of people think of as Republicans, and that’s kind of helped me because later, further down the road, I’ve opened up a little bit to these people about my political views,” he says.
Bridging differences takes time. The late Harold Saunders, founder of the Sustained Dialogue Institute, knew this: A U.S. diplomat, he was instrumental in Middle East peace negotiations, including the Camp David Accords of 1978. However, like Middle East peace, campus understanding can be temporary and ever shifting. It’s still worth persisting.
“I really do believe it can work,” Ciambriello says, noting that a benefit to students is that managing differences is a crucial career and life skill. “Even if it’s just, honestly, that people who never thought they would talk to each other are talking to each other, if that’s the takeaway, that’s meaningful. Because then they can talk to other people, or say, ‘Hey, here’s a little skill I learned, to hold a beat and listen and hear someone out.’ It’s not for me to change your mind or for you to change my mind. That’s really not the point at all.”