While I was an undergraduate student, I participated in an intergroup relations dialogue program, which was essentially a weekly dialogue session that brought students of different backgrounds together with hopes of establishing a more cohesive campus community. There was one lesson that resonated so deeply with me and has possibly inspired my view on this project. You do not have to agree with someone in order to tolerate their view. You only need to be able to listen to them and agree that they are entitled to their own view. By the time you are sitting in a room with someone you consider your adversary and having a conversation with them, albeit an uncomfortable one, you realize that you are not “too late” and that you are taking progressive steps forward.
Through the dialogue program, survey groups will be assembled that will, through the guidance of a trained facilitator, initiate structured group dialogues of substantive and meaningful interactions across differences. While the focus of each session will be different, the topics build upon each other. By including a balanced number and class of participants, these groups can have an opportunity to establish lines of communications through a sustained and facilitated learning environment. The most vital aspect of this is to ensure that participants understand the process of a dialogue and to not to associate it with a debate. The focus is not on the facts or establishing what/who is right or wrong. The goal is not to achieve a measurable result as a group, as there is no attainable collective goal. The main focus will be to create a forum where each participant can internalize their own goal and train themselves in the tolerance of ideas. Individuals may have a strong advertence to certain views and the idea is not to change their views, but to give them an opportunity to express these views and discuss the commonalities (and difference) they have with others.
The first sample group (pilot group) of these sessions will be four groups of Armenian college students, of mixed age, gender, field of study, in four different universities in California. The groups will first engage in intragroup dialogue, establishing modes of communication between the members of their own social identity group. The second phase will be to interact these groups of Armenian college students with two groups of ethnic-mixed students. As a sample group, I hope that the facilitators working on this project will be able to identify successes and difficulties, which will give us a better idea on how to change the program before other sample groups are assembled. Some approaches to the dialogues will be:
- Active and engaged learning- use of historical, sociological and cultural materials (movies, photos, etc.) to stimulate reflection and analysis in the individual, which will then be transformed into dialogue. Self-assessments in the form of writing assignments, material sharing, etc.
- Structured Interaction- seminars will be held twice a week for one-hour long sessions over the course of four weeks
- Facilitation- participants will work with facilitators to set rules for the dialogue sessions, guidelines for respectful environments
The various issues of dialogue will engage students in exploring diversity, inequality, victimization and historical memory and their personal and social responsibility for building a just society and advancing human rights. No person wants to be identified as a perpetrator. Yet, similarly, no person wants to be classified as a victim either. Past approaches have sought to victimize survivor groups and antagonize perpetrator groups, but I think the only way to tackle the issue is through collaborative communication. We need exchanges that stress the experiential similarities and differences, rather than just mud slinging. Commemoration, recognition, and awareness of inhumanities are not swept under the rug to maintain dialogue or to “keep the cooperation going,” but they are illuminated through the subjective experiences of the very individuals involved.
This coming April, the Armenian community will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. As a member of this community during this very important juncture, this particular project has great meaning for me, particularly because it was through an intergroup relations dialogue program that I realized where I stand within this movement. It was through creating lines of communication that I realized that I am not a victim. I come from a line of survivors; people who had took on the great challenge of reconstructing the pieces of their lives in countries that they had been adopted into. They were transplanted into societies that they did not recognize and had to co-exist with people they had no similarities with. Yet, they became active members of their community, created lives and careers for themselves, and created families with strong roots and big dreams of which I became a member. I had to realize this by sitting with a group and sharing my story, then realizing how interconnected my story was with the others that were shared. While I will commemorate the memory of those lost and I will fight for recognition, I also have a responsibility to understand, explore my own identity and status, and foster positive relationships by developing empathy and bridging differences.