St. Olaf College student Don Williams ‘18 has received a National Dialogue Award from the Sustained Dialogue program in honor of the way that he has used dialogue and action to improve the campus community.
Williams is one of only three people to win the award this year — the other recipients are Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and congressional staff member Bre Swims. All three will accept their awards at a November 17 ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Ginsburg will give the keynote address.
The Sustained Dialogue program is a social change process that aims to transform dialogue about social issues such as identity, community, and inclusivity into action. The program was created by American diplomat Harold “Hal” Saunders, who contributed to peace processes in the Middle East.
Williams has been involved with Sustained Dialogue at St. Olaf since the program was first adopted by the college, where it is co-sponsored by the Center for Multicultural and International Engagement and the Institute for Freedom and Community. He served as a moderator for his first two years of participation, and he now works as a student co-coordinator.
In addition to leading Sustained Dialogue groups, attending conferences, training moderators, and recruiting participants, Williams hosted an event last year called De-Stereotype Me. This project encouraged participants to share their personal experiences with stereotypes and to consider how the St. Olaf community can transcend these stereotypes.
Williams says that his goal in hosting De-Stereotype Me was to “showcase that even though we are different in our personalities, we have some type of commonality.”
“Realizing our differences will allow us to appreciate the community that we have,” says Williams, “which in turn will give us the ability and opportunity to converse about harsh topics.”
Creating change through conversation
It is this dialogue about difficult subjects that Williams and many others involved with Sustained Dialogue find especially valuable for the St. Olaf community. “I feel like that’s what St. Olaf needs, being free to have hard conversations and being free to challenge yourself,” Williams says.
Sustained Dialogue participants work in six groups of around 15, meeting for an hour and a half each week for a 10-week period. Each group is led by two or three moderators who have completed an intensive two-day training program.
Throughout the semester-long process, Sustained Dialogue participants cultivate relationships that support effective problem-solving across differences. The first four weeks of the program are centered on “getting to know and trust your group,” Assistant Director of Residence Life Joshua Lee says. Groups also seek to understand the roots of conflict and misunderstanding of different aspects of our social identity. Sustained Dialogue directs participants to focus on the “Big Eight” social identifiers: socioeconomic status, gender and sex, age, race and color, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and ability.
Next, participants share their personal experiences and connect these to the larger community. The goal of the individual dialogue group is to create a space in which participants are able to “hear each other’s stories,” Director of Multicultural and International Engagement Sindy Fleming ’01 says.
Finally, “depending on what becomes a trend in that conversation,” says Lee, each group concentrates on a specific issue for the remaining six weeks.
“Each week, the Sustained Dialogue group begins their discussion where they left off at the end of the last meeting,” Fleming says. Participants work together to craft a plan of action to address the root causes of conflict.
As Lee says, the program is “not just about talking; it’s about changing as well.”
Dialogue groups from the first year of Sustained Dialogue focused on issues such as mental health and race, often connecting their conversations to the “Big Eight” social identifiers. Their final projects included a climate study of St. Olaf, a discussion about a new General Education requirement, and Donut Dialogues, a one-time event that invited members of the St. Olaf community to dialogue about campus issues.
“What we decided to focus on came about so naturally,” participant Aidan Zielske ‘18 says.
Building relationships through trust
Now in its third year at St. Olaf, Sustained Dialogue is “exponentially growing,” according to Lee. Since the program began, it has had a total of 267 participants — including 211 students, 12 faculty members, and 44 staff members.
According to Lee, the unique appeal of Sustained Dialogue lies in this combination of students, faculty, and staff. “In order to really change, you need to involve faculty and staff” as well as students, he notes. By creating a space for these blended interactions, Sustained Dialogue brings transformative potential to St. Olaf.
Williams believes that Sustained Dialogue enables participants to “reach someone past their title as faculty, staff, and or student. It’s an opportunity to leave those titles behind and really come together to talk about situations that are dear to our hearts.”
Participants also point to trust within dialogue groups as an indispensable element of the program. “It went beyond my expectations with getting to know people and just building that framework of trust,” says Zielske.
By establishing group norms that foster respect and understanding — such as “don’t be afraid of silence,” “argue about the idea rather than attack the person,” and “assume that everyone has the best intentions” — Zielske’s dialogue group was able to cultivate trusting relationships.
This year, Williams plans to build on the previous success of Sustained Dialogue by fostering dialogue with the broader St. Olaf community. “We have people who can’t get strictly involved and commit to the program for the year, but having a process here on campus that allows students, faculty, and staff to come to us about harsh topics is important,” he explains.
“Community is about conversation,” says Williams, “and that’s exactly what Sustained Dialogue provides.”