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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

What Now? Having Difficult Conversations in Our Community

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On March 16, the Boisi Center hosted a student town hall entitled What Now? Having Difficult Conversations in Our Community to encourage thoughtful discussion on the importance and difficulties of discourse in the Trump era. Student panelists Catherine Cole, MCAS ’17, Sara Elzeini, MCAS ’18, and Maura Lester McSweeney, MCAS ’17, provided thoughtful remarks that spurred a lengthy small-group discussion. The group told impactful anecdotes, asked honest questions, and shared human insecurities and vulnerabilities with the goal of creating more safe, open, and constructive spaces for conversation at BC and in the greater community.

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Catherine Cole was the first panelist to speak. She noted how easy it is to talk to others, even our friends, with the wrong goals and without listening. To get to the root of the matter and find common ground, we should genuinely seek to understand why the other person believes what they believe. Cole concluded that we should not start conversations with the goal of changing the other person’s mind. Rather, conversations and relationships require a give-and-take, an open mind, and the understanding that the beliefs of others are often grounded in their upbringing, circumstances, and values.

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Sara Elzeini followed by admitting the shortcomings of BC’s official neutral stance on many pressing political and social issues. Elzeini advocated for a BC that makes its students and community feel protected by engaging these conversations. For Elzeini, activism is not and should not be confined to protests, boycotts, and demonstrations. Dialogue can be a form of activism as well. Elzeini echoed Cole by reiterating the importance of give-and-take in conversations. She remarked that listening to and understanding new perspectives promotes growth, and this should be encouraged in our community.

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Maura Lester McSweeney pointed out that we tend to engage only with people who share our views. She believes that this dividedness comes from a lack of trust and feelings of insecurity. Invoking Aristotle, McSweeney said that laws and politics are about how we relate to one another and that these things should not be set aside in our friendships. When we realize that our relationships and our politics are, more often than not, interconnected, we can begin to have difficult and important conversations. In order for this to happen, however, we must acknowledge our different life circumstances, realize our own reasons for holding certain beliefs, and put ourselves in the shoes of the person on the other side.

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The speakers provoked a variety of questions, worries, and ideas for change among the small group participants, such as the importance of humility and the need to let go of our presuppositions when talking to others. Students also discussed the specific role of a BC student, and how students can use their platform to uplift the voices of people with identities distinct from their own. A number of frustrations were also discussed, such as the difficulty of being vulnerable and sharing experiences when others are not receptive to the conversation. The conversation closed with brainstorming new ways to get people talking on campus, and the suggestion that “we can start with our common humanity when we’re looking for common ground.” 

Photos by MTS Photography