It was during graduate school at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign that I was introduced to dialogue (and swept off my feet!) As the conservative kid beginning a highly progressive doctoral program, I had no interest in picking fights – and initially opted to mostly keep quiet and listen. The second year of graduate school, after facing some difficult personal and family challenges, I was surrounded with love by this liberal community.
That same year, I took a dialogue course from the amazing Joycelyn Landrum-Brown and Joe Minarik – who became my first dialogue mentors. In that class, picked the Mormon/gay divide as the focus of my first dialogue facilitation (based on the idea that if we could dialogue about this, then we ought to be able to talk about anything!) That conversation between classmates from both communities was a memorable moment that convinced me there was something special about this dialogue stuff. Fascinated by the contrasting interpretations of these two communities, my gay research partner Nathan Todd and I conducted interviews of local citizens on a variety of difficult socio-political topics – eventually publishing two articles on general contrasts between liberal/conservative narratives and contrasting narratives of domestic violence accountability.
I was then invited to co-facilitate a liberal-conservative dialogue course through the Program of Intergroup Relations at the U of I. Across three semesters, I was amazed to witness the profound experiences that emerge when diverse people (10 liberal-leaning and 10-conservative leaning undergraduates) simply make an agreement to follow some basic ground-rules as they explore hot topics together. Gay rights was always the hottest topic – and invariably someone came away saying, “That was the first time I’ve ever been able to talk about gay rights in a productive way.”
We were so impressed that we decided to formally evaluate the course and publish our results (see research paper here). That fall, I shared the results at the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) – an organization that has been a home for me for 10 years now. Following the presentation, this cool hippie professor from New York came up to me and said, “I’ve been looking for you!” Phil Neisser (Political Science Chair, State University of New York, Potsdam) asked if I’d be willing to talk about some of our disagreements – which launched a year long conversation addressing religion, morality, power, authority, race, gender roles & sexual orientation.
The resulting book – You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong) was featured on This American Life the week before Obama’s re-election. It was an absolute treat to write with Phil – and subsequently we’ve done a couple of workshops on Red Blue dialogue at various universities and community groups – including Flint Michigan and next month, in the battleground state of Iowa. In 2012, Phil and I also joined Joan Blades and Amanda Roman in Seattle for an NCDD workshop entitled, “Expanding Liberal-Conservative Dialogue in America: A Strategizing Session” – exploring various ways to increase the exposure and accessibly of socio-political dialogue.
During these years, I finished a discourse analysis of the conversation about romance in the United States: “Once upon a time, he wasn’t feeling it anymore: What’s killing romance in America” – examining the different ways we think about attraction, romance, love and the body (with a bounded focus on heterosexual relationships).
In 2014, I sent out an inquiry on the NCDD to see if anyone else would be interested in joining Phil and myself in a workshop exploring a more productive conversation between the LGBT community and religious conservatives. I ended up hearing back from four individuals in addition to Phil: Tracy Hollister, program Direct for Marriage Equality U.S.A., Arthur Pena, a gay Christian teacher from California, John Backman, a queer Episcopalian author, and Heidi Weaver, President and Founder of Love-Boldly, an Evangelical/LGBT dialogue organization. We converged in Washington D.C. that fall for a fun exploration of what more could be done to help support communities having this conversation, entitled, “Making Space for Sacred Convictions in Dialogue & Deliberation: Threat, Necessity or Opportunity?” We started our presentation, saying “So an Atheist, a Baptist, two Marxists and a Gay Activist walked into a bar”…admitting how humorous even the attempt at a joint workshop might appear.
Well, joke or not – we had some fun together – and learned a lot. Tracy and I decided to co-host some Living Room Conversations in Utah together – an experience we co-wrote about in the Huffington Post (see Eating Hummus with the Enemy). That same fall, I had been invited by Joan Blades & Debilyn Molineaux to become a partner for Living Room Conversations – and have been working over the last year to help make Living Room Conversations a sustainable part of the Utah landscape. You won’t meet a more inspiring champion of heart-felt, generous dialogue than Joan Blades – and it has been an immense pleasure and rich learning experience to be a part of the LRC team. Joan and I co-wrote a piece for opendemocracy.net entitled, “Can you change the world from your living room?” – with two other pieces published in the same outlet the following two years: “American politics: beyond angels and demons” & “Christianity was liberation for you—for me it was slavery: a tale of two kingdoms.”
In early 2015, a stunning political ‘common ground’ bill passed in the Utah legislature – bringing together religious freedom and gay rights interests in a joint effort (see my summary here). That same spring, with the generous support of Living Room Conversations, I founded Village Square Utah – a chapter of a national organization started in Tallahassee in 2008. Their national director, Liz Joyner, Liz Joyner – has become another wonder teacher to me in this work. We’ve had forums so far highlighting positive examples of religious conservative/LGBT dialogue (see video highlights here) and a more generous conversation on the secular/religious divide in Utah (highlights coming soon). In partnership with Utah Humanities, Living Room Conversations and Village Square have launched a season of conversations on policing, immigration, climate change and religious freedom – with events co-sponsored with the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program and the Peace and Conflict Studies Program(s) at the University of Utah. Our goal in these conversations is to spark many more smaller conversations throughout neighborhoods – like illustrated in these video highlights here.
In summer of 2015, Phil and I published Ten Reasons to Spend Time with Your Political Opposite & Ten Reasons to Stay Away from Your Political Opposite in the Huffington Post. In fall of 2015, Phil and I were honored to receive the inaugural Founders award presented by Public Conversations Project. Since meeting folks at Public Conversations Project back in 2006 in San Francisco’s NCDD conference, I’ve been inspired by their work – and couldn’t be more touched and humbled by this award from one of the nation’s premiere dialogue organization. And this fall, our dialogue Dream Team of Tracy, Heidi, Phil, John and Arthur got back together for a workshop at the Parliament of the World Religions, entitled, “When Sacred Convictions Collide: Making Dialogue Work Across Our Deepest Divides.”
In part inspired by these dialogues, I am starting this blog this fall. We’re also organizing LRC’s on gun rights/gun control – and preparing for conversations on climate change, policing and immigration in the New Year. With Living Room Conversation’s backing, I am leading a team of dialogue practitioners finishing the Red Blue Dictionary in time for the 2016 presidential election year.
That’s a little about me!