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Bridging the Gap: Using Dialogues on Race to Bring a Community Together

December 15, 2014
New Research
Race/Class/Gender, Social Justice
Washington, DC  -  In the current climate of increasingly strained race relations in cities across the United States, how can communities engage in productive rather than destructive struggle to become more thriving and diverse places? A recent article in the Journal of Applied Communication Research found that dialogue centered on difference can be a powerful force for change.

Dialogue is often thought of as synonymous with communication, as in “we had a dialogue.” However, dialogue also can be a way to view relationships. Partners in dialogic relationships are open to truly listening to different perspectives, are not afraid to discuss differences in all their complexity, and look for possibilities to create change.

A qualitative two-year study of the dialogic relationships among three nonprofit organizations in Springfield, Missouri that are working to make Springfield a more inclusive place in which to live and work—the Chamber of Commerce, the Network for Young Professionals, and the Minorities in Business organization—demonstrated that race was not just a variable to address within these relationships; it was at the heart of them. “Race remains a difficult subject to talk about in our culture,” says Stephanie Norander, Associate Professor of Organizational Communication at Missouri State University and lead author of the study. “Instead of viewing racial differences as something to be ‘fixed,’ we ought to make those differences the center and foundation of dialogue and community.”

The study shows that any talk about race relations must acknowledge past events. Springfield, like a lot of other U.S. cities, has a tragic racial history. The lynching of three black men in 1906 has become an important, although painful, part of the community’s identity. Through dialogue, participants can understand others’ perspectives of past events, which influence present-day efforts to enact diversity goals. Moreover, understanding that the past is shared—all who live in the community share the story—is a starting point for building trust and taking action.

Many community members were frustrated with the slow pace of change and blamed “too much talk about diversity and not enough action.” However, talk is a form of action that can help move the community forward on its diversity goals as opposed to crafting value statements that merely pay lip service to diversity and inclusiveness, says study co-author Gloria Galanes, Professor of Communication and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Missouri State University. The research revealed the value and importance of ongoing dialogue about race and diversity. Such talk can help create a safe space where majority and minority community members can directly learn about others’ experiences.

How diversity goals are framed and discussed is connected to—and just as important as—how they are enacted. The three organizations framed the conversation around both economic empowerment and racial justice. Rather than just state the business case, or profit motive, for diversity, members talked about how improving the economic prospects for local business people was good for the entire community because it meant empowerment, access to resources, and creation of more open relationships for all citizens. 

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