June 02, 2009

Project Dialogue

Project Dialogue actively addresses the need for action research to improve the understanding of dialog practices and to improve training.
Faculty contact: Tod Sloan

Faculty contact: Tod Sloan

Actively addressing the need for action research to improve the understanding of dialog practices and to improve training, Project Dialogue will have four basic features: a network of regional practitioners available to facilitate community dialogues in spaces where understanding, collaboration, and consensus are sorely needed  (dialogues would always be linked to efforts to foster community resilience, social justice and ecological sustainability); provide a method to systematically document and review dialog experiences in order to disseminate lessons learned through a variety of media; provide consultation to organizations on the design of dialog practices for conferences, community conversations, and other settings; and deliver a series of Center for Community Engagement courses constituting a certificate program in Dialogue Theory and Practice.

The Story of Project Dialogue

The origins of Project Dialogue can be found in many streams that come together at this time at Center for Community Engagement in the Graduate School at Lewis & Clark.  The streams are historical, cultural- philosophical, institutional, and personal.  I want to talk about each of these in order to give supporters of Project Dialogue activities a clearer sense of what we are hoping to accomplish. 

The historical stream is a long one reaching back centuries.  Human communities have engaged in dialogue of one form or another even as language was beginning to develop as a human capacity.  This is because the need for clear and deep understanding of different points of view has been essential to our survival.  A common image of indigenous communities is a circle gathering in which each participant speaks and is heard before a decision is taken.  In later historical forms, we see Quaker meetings, salons in 19th century Paris, 1970s women’s consciousness raising gatherings in the USA, interfaith and interracial dialogue circles, and so forth.  With the rise of electronically-mediated communications, however, public and face-to-face gatherings have decreased and been supplanted to a certain extent by virtual communication.  While this has opened up new possibilities for identity construction and language use, many are sensing a deep need for careful and prolonged conversation with others in their neighborhoods, workplaces, cities, and faith communities.  Project Dialogue intends to help address this need.

The cultural-philosophical streams have come from both East and West over the centuries and have insisted on the importance of expanding one’s personal horizons of understanding both as a form of enlightenment as well as a mode of meaningful living with others.  Understanding the ‘Other’ is recognized as a primary challenge en route to self-knowledge, empathy, love, and peace.   In other words, achieving these values takes work – the work of dialogue.  The meaningfulness of experience itself can be said to be dialogical.

The institutional stream refers to the longstanding mission of the Graduate School at Lewis & Clark – to foster social justice through learning, service, and leadership.   From 2004 to 2007, the Graduate School’s Oregon Center for Inquiry and Social Innovation piloted public dialogue to reduce polarization about the US occupation of Iraq and to understand the needs of Portland’s immigrant communities.  In 2008 we began planning to support a wide array of projects connecting the Graduate School to communities locally and internationally through the new Center for Community Engagement that hosts Project Dialogue.

The personal stream is my own awakening to the import of dialogue.  Growing up in the suburban USA, and spending years in international enclaves in Asian countries, I struggled with a sense of alienation from community and estrangement from others.  Later, in training as a psychotherapist, I learned the power of dialogue in fostering connection, empathy, and healing through story, symbol and metaphor.  Then as I found myself more interested in community-level transformation, I discovered over and over how the absence of interpersonal and intergroup understanding can produce frustration, conflict, ineffectiveness, and eventually apathy.  I saw this in all sorts of settings: nonprofits, grassroots organizing, political parties, and universities.  In 2002, I attended the first National Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation and found hundreds of others working in similar settings with the purpose of fostering deeper dialogue, wiser decision making and fuller democracy.  I was hooked.  When I came to Lewis & Clark in 2004 to chair the Department of Counseling Psychology, I was eager to organize a space in which scholarship, experience, and training in connection with dialogue practices could occur.  Now the moment has come and I am excited to know that faculty and student colleagues and community members alike are ready to collaborate on this venture.

During the Spring of 2009, I received a mini-grant from Lewis & Clark’s Presidential Strategic Initiative Fund to develop a plan for Project Dialogue.  The basic strategy was to consult with experts on the contemporary dialogue practices and roles that academics could play in supporting them.  A planning team in the Graduate School met first with Joanne Ashworth, director of the Morris Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver, BC, and then with Tom Atlee of The Co-Intelligence Institute and Elliott Shuford of Healthy Democracy Oregon.

The mission that emerged from our consultations could be stated as follows:

To foster and support dialogues for understanding and wisdom, to learn from them through systematic reflection, and, in light of these experiences, to train individuals to design and facilitate productive dialogues.

Our brainstorming led to the following exciting possible avenues to explore in the near future as Project Dialogue develops:

  • Ongoing study groups involving faculty and dialogue practitioners (for example, we’re planning to read and discuss Dmitri Nikulin’s On Dialogue during 2009-10)
  • Ongoing reflection groups (‘a community of practice’) to provide opportunities for practitioners to linking direct experience in dialogue spaces to various levels of social and cultural theory – a way of developing methods for observing and understanding dialogue
  • Outreach, advocacy, and accompaniment for dialogic practices in civic life (for example, in the Transition Town Initiative’s efforts to get grassroots input into Portland’s Climate Action Plan)
  • Work in a variety of settings: community based organizations, nonprofits, local government, faith communities, neighborhood associations, bioregional meetings
  • Involve all three schools of Lewis & Clark: College of Arts and Sciences, Law School, and Graduate School of Education and Counseling


Project Dialogue invites all interested parties to contact us with any ideas for how we might accompany or help open dialogue spaces along the lines sketched out above.  Just write to Tod Sloan at sloan@lclark.edu or call 503-768-6066.