Dr. Sam Richards began teaching Soc119 in 1991, and since then has cultivated it to become the largest course on U.S. race relations in the US. In this class, Dr. Richards had the idea to employ a team of undergraduate students to lead weekly breakout sessions. In order to realize this vision, his colleague (and wife), Dr. Laurie Mulvey, volunteered to train a small group of teaching assistants each semester. As the class and the success of the breakout sessions grew, Drs. Mulvey and Richards (Sam and Laurie) both wondered how to do more work with these skilled student facilitators once the semester was finished.
This question was answered in 2002 in the wake of rising racial tension at Penn State.
The community at PSU was deeply divided following death threats to the president of Black Caucus. As a result of the related student uprising on campus, two local alumni wanted to contribute to something that could address race issues in a new way. Sam had the idea to apply the model of his Soc 119 breakout sessions to a campus-wide dialogue initiative that would encourage the entire student community to participate in this conversation. The alumni liked his idea and as a result, seed funding was given, and the Race Relations Project was born.
Six students were selected from Soc119 to be the initial team of facilitators for the Race Relations Project.
The original six facilitators were selected to participate in this fledgling endeavor from a pool of the SOC 119 facilitators who were recognized as the most skilled in encouraging dialogue. With relatively limited experience--but immense trust in a simple vision of the power of conversation, this group followed the leadership of Sam and Laurie, successfully facilitating 135 discussions outside of the classroom that first year. They led dialogues on dorm floors, in fraternities and sororities, in meetings of student groups, as well as in a handful of university classes. It was a gutsy beginning, but positive attitudes and meaningful conversations set the foundation for a rapidly expanding project.
After the first year of pilot dialogues, the Race Relations Project adopted a methodology.
After establishing alliances with offices and colleges across campus, the Race Relations Project committed itself to using a version of the Socratic Method to encourage participants to examine issues through questions rather than conclusions, through dialogue rather than debate. That was a significant moment in defining the co-curricular relevance and unique educational mission of the dialogues.
Then, the Race Relations Project grew. A lot.
Over the next several years, these campus dialogues grew to over one thousand per year--which was a huge leap that involved selecting and training additional facilitators, hiring a full time staff member and expanding into multiple offices to manage the increasing volume of work.
As the infrastructure and number of dialogues evolved, so did the dialogues themselves.
Although “U.S. race relations” remained the central focus, conversations also began to address issues related to gender and faith, local concerns related to student life (such as drinking and sexual assault), as well as a range of international issues. With this expansion came a new name--World in Conversation Project. And the changes didn’t stop there.
Videoconferencing technology enabled the first international dialogues.
While the topics of the dialogues were evolving, so too was the medium. Through chance meetings with several colleagues in the Middle East, as well as a collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme, Penn State student facilitators had the opportunity to lead conversation with their peers around the world via Skype, Google Hangout, and other video-conferencing platforms.
After more than a decade of experience, World in Conversation became a Center for Public Diplomacy in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State.
World in Conversation was now reaching more than 8,000 participants a year, locally and globally.
The humanizing impact of these dialogues received the attention of some colleagues at NATO. As a result, NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Program decided to fund a 3-year study to systematically examine the value of peer-facilitated (virtual) dialogues between NATO cadets (in over a dozen countries across the Alliance) and students living in Afghanistan. Although this initiative has received the most public attention, the Center’s commitment to the subject of U.S. race relations remains intact (and accounts for eighty-five percent of its programming).
The Center has now completed more than 10,000 total dialogues since its inception in 2002.
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