Dialogue As a Strategy for Transformative Education

Addie Lorraine Walker


How can I truly learn about "the other"—who is different from me, one about whom I have many assumptions and misgivings? How do I come to a deeper self-identity without degrading or disrespecting the other's identity or articulated self-understanding? What educational strategies can facilitate such learning? These questions arise out of a search for an educational strategy that is both informative and transformative.

I am proposing in this essay that dialogue is an educational strategy that allows "us" to learn about "the other" in the presence of "the other," while "the other" learns about "us" in our presence. Dialogue in this sense requires:

Dialogue, thus understood, is a strategy for transformative education, a strategy that can offer us vital clues for educating in situations of diversity.

In this essay, I will examine the model of dialogue used in the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium in order to explore the implications of this model for use with groups of differing "racial" backgrounds. Before proceeding, however, one clarification is necessary. Though "race" is a socially constructed concept, its concrete effects on the ethnic groups of this country have been and are real, not imagined. My search is for a way to counteract the ill effects of this construct and to develop ways groups can in the future interact for the common good.

Elements Enabling Dialogue

Every educational strategy demands a certain level of readiness among participants if the strategy is to facilitate movement towards the desired educational goal(s). This is especially true when one chooses dialogue as an educational strategy with groups and persons who see themselves as different from or even opposed to each other. Thus, who participates in the dialogue is crucial. Because of the careful way in which participants were selected, each person came to the Colloquium with personal resources that enhanced the possibility of dialogue: a generally healthy self-knowledge and sense of identity, a reverence for other participants, an openness to speak one's own truth, as well as the ability to hear and to receive another's truth, and, finally, a commitment to educational process.

As I reflect on what made it possible for me, a black Catholic woman, to participate fully in the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium, I can identify four significant factors. First, all of us had a common professional interest, religious education, and each was deeply committed to his or her own faith tradition. Second, the interests, goals and responses of the participants were taken seriously. The directors modeled the process as well as facilitated it. Each of us, though we did not know the details of particular strategies the directors would employ in each session, trusted educational process in general because of our professional backgrounds; some of us also knew and trusted one or the other of the directors. Third, we were given stimulating resources and adequate time for study. Fourth, the Colloquium was held in a neutral space that made it "safe" for everyone, and other arrangements (e.g., food, pleasant atmosphere) enhanced our time together. In sum, dialogue resulted from the interaction of participants who were prepared and involved, leaders who were trustworthy, educational processes that were engaging, and an environment that was safe and conducive to intensive work.

As I look back on it, the initial commitment the directors asked for as a condition of our acceptance motivated me to spend significant time in preparation for our gatherings. Other participants seemed to take their commitment with equal seriousness. The sacrifices that many participants made to attend the Colloquium also reflected this commitment. On one occasion, the three of us in the Boston area spent eight hours at Logan Airport in hopes of making it to the meeting in a snowstorm. As it turned out, the three of us—two Jews and I—spent most of the time discussing the materials we had read in preparation for the meeting, including the reflection questions that had been sent to us for preparation. We critiqued one of the books that we had been assigned, and explained details of other texts from the perspective of our respective faith traditions. This led to a deep sharing of our personal experience of the Colloquium and its impact on our lives. In effect, we had a mini-Colloquium at the airport. It was a memorable event for each of us.

The preparation and study the Colloquium demanded were critical factors for me. It soon became apparent that both Catholics and Jews needed common information—history, practices, symbols, texts and experiences of the interrelationship between our two traditions – as articulated by members of that tradition. Only then could each of us come with some accurate information about the other tradition and our own out of which we could structure our questions and engage one another.

The readings about my own tradition were both affirming of and challenging to my faith commitment. The careful selection of preparatory materials played an important role. On the positive side, the selection of The Partings of the Ways by James D.G. Dunn was life-changing for me. Just reading the book changed my uncritical acceptance of some Christian interpretations of first-century events and Jesus’ role or presence in that context. Even though I had studied or taught this history before, I had never critically thought through what it meant for Jesus to be a Jew among Jews in the first century. The discussion Dunn’s book stimulated enabled me to see how intricately connected early Christianity was to Judaism. I captured a glimpse of the roots of the "aversion and fascination, attraction and revulsion" (Funkenstein 1993, 170) that has existed between Jews and Christians over the years. I also came to appreciate how differently Jews and Christians come to the study and interpretation of our sacred texts and how that affects our understanding of one another.

On the negative side, I felt alienated by a text assigned for Colloquium IV, The American Catholic Experience by Jay Dolan, which recounted the immigrant Catholic story with virtually no attention to Blacks. Dolan, for example, omits the fact that the earliest black presence in the United States (1527) was a black Catholic presence. Not only that, other contributions of black Catholics to the development of the Catholic Church in the United States either were not mentioned or glossed over. Needless to say, I was pretty incensed at his presentation. It certainly did not represent my Catholic story in America. I felt marginalized within my "faith alike" group, even before I left home for Colloquium IV, and I resented the exclusion. I felt like an outsider within my own faith tradition—invisible or insignificant, at best. Particularly painful was that I believed most members of my faith alike group did not notice the omission. For them, as in the minds of most Catholics, the North American Catholic Church of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an immigrant Catholic Church. Blacks and Native Americans did not and do not figure into the building of the United States or the American Catholic Church.

Likewise, there were occasions on which I found the emphasis on the European dimensions of Catholic-Jewish relations to be alienating. In Colloquium III, for instance, we spent some time reviewing Romanticism and the Enlightenment. But all I could think about was the overwhelming reality of slavery in my history as an African American. I felt paralyzed, unable to participate in the discussion. Moreover, I did not know how to address the source of my discomfort—the European focus of the discussion—given the pain my people had endured. No one else seemed to be bothered by it. And, I thought, why would they, considering their reading of history? My participation, usually energetic and vivacious, became minimal. I felt silenced by the framing of the topic. People noticed my uncharacteristic silence, and later commented on it. Nonetheless, I felt like an outsider. No one commented on this. I felt really alone.

The saving grace for me was that many other participants also felt uncomfortable with the questions posed by our guest scholar about the effects of Romanticism and the Enlightenment on our tradition, although for different reasons. We Catholics were not that well schooled in our history, and the preparation we had done for the session was not congruent with the questions posed. The mismatch between the resources we had studied and the direction of this particular session gave rise to considerable discomfort. I shared these feelings. Later, the directors, facilitating faith-alike groups, helped us identify our disequilibrium. It was in the midst of that discussion that I began to own, in a new way, an identification with Jews—victimized, left out of Christian renditions of history and left out of the real consciousness of the life and understanding of American Catholic Christians. My own admission of feeling silenced helped me to realize that dialogue as a strategy for inter-group transformation had to happen for me within my own tradition as well as across the two different faith traditions.

Later, informal conversation with a Jewish participant confirmed my dual status. Apparently, he had little understanding of the black experience in the United States. He began to engage me around the "inability of black Americans to pull themselves up by their bootstraps," as other ethnic minorities had, namely, Jews. I found this a painful affirmation of my "outsider-outsider" status, lest I too quickly over-identified with the Jews and not with the Catholics.

I mentioned both of these experiences to the directors. The compassionate listening with which I was received kept me involved and continuing in my commitment to the Colloquium. They did not try to "save me" or "fix it" and, yet, each of them heard me, understood the depth of my feeling and stood with me in their own powerlessness to do anything to alleviate my pain. Their example stirred my own resolve to stay committed to the possibility of transformation that could happen (and had happened for them) by dialogue across religious traditions. Their example of compassionate presence with me gave me a clue that maybe, just maybe, this process could also be used across racial differences.

Another aspect of the strategy that I found crucial to the overall success of the project was the overview of each session. Well in advance of each meeting of the Colloquium, we received an outline and materials to review. The focusing questions provided a common framework for participants. The directive that implied we should "come prepared to share" helped me to know that my point of view, not simply my physical presence, was important to the process. The timely reception of the materials and focusing questions facilitated my participation at a higher level of confidence and competence. Had I come unprepared, potentially my responses (or more aptly, my reactions) necessarily could only have come from uninformed opinions, defensive reactions, or, at times, feelings grounded in "Christian guilt" alone.

The value of preparation and reflection on common materials for constructive dialogue was made even clearer when I attended a presentation by Cornell West and Michael Lerner to publicize their book, Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (1995). I was initially interested in their presentation because of its apparent connection to transformative dialogue. They opened the evening in the style of their book—a conversation—and then indicated they would include the audience. We the audience, however, were simply observers. Only at the end did Lerner and West entertain questions or comments from the floor. I leaned over to the friend who had invited me and said, "This can never work. The only thing that can happen here is a fight. First, this is not a neutral or safe space. Second, people are coming here with different bases of knowledge and different agenda."

Even as I was speaking, about thirty men in suits and bow ties from the Nation of Islam marched into the auditorium, some seating themselves in the front, others on the side. One white woman leaned over to me and said, "I'm frightened, aren't you?" I told her, "No." However, the atmosphere was very charged and I didn't feel anyone had control of this process. The language of the presenters, under the guise of "honest and open," had in actuality been inflammatory; it was not necessarily representative of either Blacks or Jews.

Perhaps the style and language of West and Lerner were appropriate to a private conversations between these two who had developed trust and respect for each other over time. But they were not conducive to building bridges for dialogue or healing among people who neither knew each other nor had a common commitment to the goals of the conversation. Further, the audience had no common basis of experience from which they could operate or any knowledge that they had acquired together as a starting point for an informed dialogue. Thus, I could see little possibility that we could "let the healing begin."

To the contrary. The tension in the auditorium heightened. The open forum opened the door to emotive and defensive reactions by members of the audience. Many comments concerned recent media coverage of conflicts between Blacks and Jews, particularly the inflammatory speeches of Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Some members of the audience made angry charges against Michael Lerner for what they perceived to be his monolithic characterization of Jews. Not surprisingly, Lerner and West reacted defensively themselves, so there was little time for any constructive dialogue. At least from my vantage point, healing did not begin that evening.

It was at this point that I began to reflect on what it might look like to use the Colloquium as a model of dialogue for transformative education across cultural and racial boundaries. I asked myself, "What made the difference? What are the elements of the Colloquium that kept me ‘hanging in there’ when I was feeling most vulnerable and most alienated? What do we have to think through, if this process were to be used with different cultural groups instead of faith traditions?"

Beyond Catholics and Jews: Extending the Dialogue

If we are to extend the processes used for dialogue between Jews and Catholics to interracial settings, it seems to me there are two major categories to think through: the structures for dialogue and the process of dialogue. By the "structures for dialogue," I mean those elements that establish optimum conditions for dialogue. If, as I suggested earlier, the success of the Colloquium depended upon the preparation of the participants, the expertise of the leaders, the strategic value of the educational processes and the care for the environment, then extrapolating to a situation in which other racial or ethnic groups might meet, I believe these same four elements should be considered.

Structures for Dialogue. Let me address a few specifics of this extrapolation to an interracial or interethnic setting. As in the Colloquium, there should be an equal number of persons drawn from groups in dialogue. They should possess some common professional commitments, and be knowledgeable about their own culture or ethnic group, as well as have a healthy self-identity. Those who direct the process should themselves be members of the groups in dialogue, and should be cognizant not only of the history of their own community, but mindful also of the relationship between the groups in dialogue.

Critical to the educational process was, as Boys and Lee put it in their essay, the "careful crafting of questions," and so the prudent selection of resource materials designed to stimulate new thinking and new questions in the participants should be a sine qua non for other groups in dialogue. Our experience in the Colloquium of always having more information and more questions than could possibly be handled in the sessions likewise seems valuable in other situations; the information and questions kept me and others searching beyond the limited time of our being together. Moreover, just as it was important that the materials selected for study about Jews and Judaism were written by Jews and those materials about Christianity and Catholics were written by Christians or Catholics, so, too, will it be important in interracial settings to have resources composed by authors within each group. For the most part, the materials made available to us were well chosen, "a good read," and informative, provocative and challenging. Preparation is essential for those who come to the table of dialogue.

Another crucial consideration is the space where the dialogue is to take place. First, there needs to time and a space "away" to begin this process of dialogue, a place where full attention can be given to the work of dialogue. Boys and Lee chose a comfortable, safe space without overt symbols of religious commitment or cultural bias that would distract from the work to be done. Likewise, when thinking about a place for an interracial dialogue (e.g., Blacks and Whites), it would impede the process of dialogue if group met in a place where Blacks held only menial jobs and Whites all the managerial positions. Equally offensive would be meeting in a place that has a long history of excluding Blacks.

In the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium, the neutral space of the conference center provided an environment where participants could bring their own signs, symbols and stories as appropriate to the process. In this space old fears and new insights about ourselves and our relationship to the other could be respected, discussed and, at times, in the case of prejudices and fears, let go. In the Colloquium "safe" space meant sacred space. When dialogue happens, the space becomes sacred.

Process for dialogue. The second aspect we need to consider in extrapolating to other dialogical settings is the educational process itself. Let me take up in turn each of the six characteristics of dialogue as I have identified them in the introduction to my essay.

In addition, it is important to honor differences among individuals and groups in the ways people study. For instance, in part because of the importance of the oral/aural tradition in Black communities, it is especially important to incorporate activities of both left and right brain. It is important to think through the patterns of learning and relating within each group, so that the best of these dynamics can be incorporated into the design.

Several caveats surface as I think about designing such a process across race lines within the North American context. First, our history is rife with failed attempts at race relations. Integration from the African-American standpoint is such a miserable failure that we have lost more than we have gained. When we think beyond ourselves to other oppressed groups like Native Americans, we know that no treaty or pact of reconciliation ever made with any tribe of Indians in America has ever been honored. This gives us little confidence that a strategy such as dialogue offers any new hope. We also know that the consequences of racism affect all aspects of life. Previous attempts at designing interracial weekends for rethinking understandings have resulted in retreats where there were new and "good" feelings about the few people in the room at the weekend, but had little effect beyond that time. Attempts to address religious and other structures in a society that continues to oppress the majority of people of color have been short-lived, or, at least, seem to be. Many of us would be hesitant to expend again so much energy for so little return. Our communities are in crisis, both internal and external, and they are confronting life-threatening issues like AIDS, unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, and loss of cultural meaning and identity. So, to choose to spend time in a interracial dialogue is left to those few—intellectuals or religious leaders—who are perceived to have time and energy to expend. This is not to say that we should not attempt this again. Rather, it is a call to consciousness how great the task is.

However, if any would be the first to hope and therefore to try again, I do hope that it would be those of us who believe that the reign of God is worth the expenditure of energies. I hope that those of us who are religious educators would be the first to look for ways to educate so that the tragic past of our race relations will not endure into the future. "For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint. . . " (Habakkuk 2:3).

Let those of us who believe in God's vision for our world work to transform our ways of teaching, learning, knowing and interacting with people who are religiously, culturally, racially or otherwise different from ourselves so that we will hasten the advent of God's reign. Dialogue as a strategy for transformative education can be a beginning.

Addie Lorraine Walker, Ph.D., a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, is Associate Director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies of Xavier University of Louisiana. She has recently moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she serves on the faculty of Assumption Seminary.


List of Works Consulted

Dolan, Jay. 1985. The American Catholic experience. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Dunn, James D. G. 1991. The Partings of the Ways. London and Philadelphia: SCM and Trinity Press International.

Funkenstein, Amos. 1993. Perceptions of Jewish history. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lerner, Michael and Cornell West. 1995. Jews and Blacks: Let the healing begin. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.