When talking makes a difference

Dean McGovern and Dave Derezotes

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

More than 100 students, staff and faculty gathered for the first Community Conversation dialogue on racism hosted by the U’s Bennion Center, the Peace and Conflict Studies Program in the College of Humanities, and the Black Cultural Center. The facilitators of this dialogue recognize, as shared in this episode of U Rising, that we are in a moment of urgency, a moment of intense grief, and also a moment of intense purpose. With that in mind, the conversations are continuing. Recorded on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast. My name is Ruth Watkins and I'm the president of the University of Utah. The U Rising podcast gives you a chance to meet some of the great people who are helping the U achieve new heights. It's also a place where we can talk about some of the big issues in society, on our campus and in our community. My guests today are Dean McGovern, executive director of the Bennion Center. The Bennion Center is our student service-learning center at the University of Utah.

And Dave Derezotes, director of the Peace and Conflict Studies program in the College of Humanities, and also a professor in the College of Social Work, among many other roles here at the U.

So welcome to you, Dean and Dave, it's a delight to have you with me today!

Now a couple weeks ago, I understand that you held a town hall meeting on racial justice. Tell me about why you decided to do this, how this event came about and the partnership between the two of you, who are from two different parts of the University of Utah.

Dean McGovern: All right, I guess I'll start. This is Dean. I got together with the team at the Bennion Center and, as the public service community engagement center on campus, we felt like we needed to do something in this moment. We felt like there was a genuine moment happening on campus and around Salt Lake City and across the country. A moment of urgency, a moment of intense grief, and also intense purpose. And we thought we would put our heads together and we thought, "Well, what's the best thing we could do?" We took our lead from Margaret Wheatley, the wise leadership scholar, who said, "You start where you are when you're confused, you start where you are." And David and I have had a history, for the last six years or so, not only conducting dialogues across campus, but coaching a dialogue class together and we felt like a dialogue could be a healing space that we could provide for students, for faculty, for staff, who might be feeling alone, might be grappling with some of the same things that we were feeling.

President Watkins: Yeah, it's so interesting, your choice of adjectives—of grief and urgency and purpose. I think there is, in this moment, such sadness and such hope. And that sort of contradiction, I guess, speaks to the urgency issue. So, tell me a little bit about how the turnout was and how you feel the dialogue progressed. Maybe, Dave, you should take that one.

David Derezotes: We sure had a lot of people sign up, I think it was over 150, and we had almost 100, as I recall, who actually joined us in the Zoom meeting. It seems to me that, this is just something I borrowed from all the wisdom traditions of the world, that we're given challenges in our life and it's part of our curriculum, right? And so all these students happen to be at the university at the same time that this convergence of all these challenges that we're all having to deal with—economic justice of the academic and racial justice issues, even climate justice.

And, like Dean said, it feels intense to all of us. Dean and I have talked many times about how important it is for us to not come as experts to students as much as to hold this space and to show them that it's possible to talk about anything, as we were discussing earlier. And I was really proud of the students that—Dean, you and I talked about this a little bit—how well they followed the brief directions we gave them, that dialogue is about listening for understanding and speaking respectfully. And those things sound simple, but they're really hard, and a quick way to think about how hard they are is, think about how many people in all of our lives really truly listen for understanding to us and also speak respectfully. So I think we did that and there's interest in continuing the conversation. We'll probably talk about that.

President Watkins: Yeah, that's spectacular. And I think you're right. We are often in such a hurry to say what we want to say, that we skip the step of listening and particularly listening respectfully to others. Maybe you could each tell me a little bit about what surprised you the most about this virtual town hall with 100 students participating, and then maybe what you found the most hopeful about what you heard.

Dean McGovern: As Dave mentioned, the overwhelming response in just a very short time. My great team at the Bennion Center was able to put together a quick invitation on a Wednesday evening after hours. It was way after 5 p.m. and then by Friday morning we had 150 folks registered and, again, around 100 being able to actually show up. That was surprising.

The other thing that I think surprised me the most was the amount of emotion that people were willing to share. I know that if we can create this space, it often comes out, but this is something new to us, this whole Zoom environment. And we hadn't tried this before, an actual dialogue and a community conversation online, virtually, without the human connection. And we heard people were feeling guilty. People were feeling exhausted, overwhelmed. We heard about racial battle fatigue. We heard urgency. We heard people were worried, desperately worried. We heard people talking about uncertainty, and then so many people, people of color, faculty, students, and staff of color, the white folks that occupy those spaces on campus, everyone wanting to figure out where they could fit into the movement. And it’s super powerful.

David Derezotes: Everything Dean said, I agree with, ditto. And in addition to that, we didn't tell them be kind to each other, but they were. There was compassion across the differences that often divide us. And I think that's, Ruth, a sign of hope because, of course, all these young folks are the future of our country and planet. And the way that they gave each other empathy seemed like automatically. And even though there's limitations to this Zoom world we're in, it's probably something as we all know that will continue after the pandemic is diminished. And in maybe these young folks will continue those kinds of conversations with people all over the world. Because with Zoom, and with translation equipment, we could probably, all of us, have these kinds of conversations about all these differences that make it difficult for us to cooperate as humans.

President Watkins: Yes. I really love hearing what both of you are saying, that you were able to both pull together this dialogue very quickly. And then it became a place where people from very different backgrounds, I'm going to assume, could demonstrate empathy and compassion and respect for each other in this larger world context of great uncertainty. And that uncertainty has produced such anxiety, certainly the pandemic and health and well-being. And then on top of that, very much clear dialogue about systemic racism, white privilege, and persistent inequities, of course, revealed very much to us by the pandemic as well. And by the health disparities that different communities are experiencing sounds like a very, very, very powerful experience. And at kind of a superficial level, I'm interested in how you directed traffic in a dialogue of 100 people. Because one of the things I think that's part of Zoom is being able to figure out whose turn it is, who's jumping in and who's not, how did you do that?

Dean McGovern: It was a bit . . . yeah, it was making us nervous going in. Zoom, thankfully, has features like raise your hand. And we used thumbs up and handclaps and all those regular things. We also, I think effectively, were able to use the chat feature where people typed in a comment. And also so much sharing. With 100 folks on the call, people had resources that others hadn't seen yet, and they were sharing them. And we've been able to compile those and share those out with the participants. That chat feature was very helpful. And patience, everyone was very patient with us.

President Watkins: I love the idea that you used the chat function and then compiled resources because perhaps you'd post that somewhere and we could direct listeners to that set of resources, because I think everyone ... I have never in my life, and now that I'm getting to be old and have 30-years plus of history in higher ed, I have never seen a moment quite like this, where I've seen such a spirit of a desire for change and that we actually do something in this moment to address some of the systemic and persistent institutional factors that have been barriers for race and racial justice. So I feel quite a responsibility to move on some of the things that have allowed us to persist and put up persistent barriers. Kind of in that spirit, it sounds like a great success. What's next? Are you going to have more dialogues like this? And how can we all be a part of it?

David Derezotes: Well, it'd be wonderful to me if dialogue was a required class, not just for our university, but for all young people growing up. It could even start in grade school in a simple level. And the reason for that dream is that that skillset of being able to form relationships, to listening for understanding and speaking respectfully, that works both in our love lives and our work lives.

And students come to the university to learn about how to be in the universe. And here's something we can offer them, like you said, Ruth, not only to use that skillset to make changes in their own world right now, but in their future world. Because I mean, who doesn't, as a human, have to deal with conflicts every day, right? With the people we love and people we don't know.

So, I'm excited that this is an opportunity for all of us instructors and staff at the university to model dialogue and use it in our classes and maybe have intentional meetings like this. Dean will probably talk more about it, but we're reaching out tomorrow, right, Dean? With the student leaders and want to hear what they want to see happen. And Dean and I and our colleagues want to respond to that and maybe create a series of dialogue events.

Dean McGovern: We're going to meet with ASUU leadership tomorrow, and we're going to plan the next session. We got overwhelmingly positive response from the first session. And if this can take off, perhaps we'll have a series and it'll be available for faculty, students, and staff to tie in whenever they feel the need to connect with other humans.

President Watkins: You've both offered such wise perspectives. And I'm really grateful that you're thinking about how to make this more accessible to more people. We like to say that we are not just preparing people for their first job, but we're creating citizens for a lifetime. And no question that dialogue skills, the ability to listen, learn, adapt your views, think about the perspective of others and genuinely hear other people whose lives have been different than yours, or whose views are different than yours, is part of being a lifelong educated citizen.

I love where you're heading with this, and I look forward to that series and hope I can be a part of it at some point. Dean, I might ask you specifically, on a regular day on campus, I could walk up to the Union and see hundreds of people coming and going from the Bennion Center and literally thousands of students every semester that are in one way or another engaged with the work of Bennion. As you think about the fall semester, what plans do you at the Bennion Center have for operating in what is a little bit of an altered universe and our modified hybrid campus vision for Fall 2020?

Dean McGovern: That's a really good question. Thank you for asking. I'm really proud of our team and their ability to pivot during this pandemic environment. We have focused on what people can do to engage in the community. We strongly believe that community engagement is a spirit. It doesn’t necessarily have to be done face-to-face. There are so many opportunities to engage with the community, either in dialogue like Dave and I have shown, fundraising, supporting organizations and causes that you care about through philanthropy, helping your neighbors out, delivering things, that type of thing.

But we're also really encouraging people to get involved in the policy and governance that is all around us as a big part of community engagement. This happens to be a census year. And so we're really going to push. The Census deadline has been extended to October. So that's going to take us into the fall and we're going to really encourage students and hard-to-reach communities to get noticed and get counted. And we're going to take a big role in our presidential election year and encouraged people to not only register to vote and vote but encourage others to register to vote and vote. So, we're really excited about the fall and we're excited to welcome the students that come back. We hope it's a bustling campus again and that everyone keeps their masks on and we're going to social distance, but we're going to engage with the community and make a difference and make our world more beautiful.

President Watkins: There is such important work done by the Bennion Center. So, students, student listeners, I hope you heard that. There's much to do at the Bennion Center on campus, even in our hybrid university plans for Fall 2020. Important work will happen on the University of Utah campus and at the Bennion Center.

Dave, some of our listeners may not know about Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Utah. Tell us a little bit about that program.

David Derezotes: Thanks, Ruth. We're an undergraduate program right now as part of College of Humanities and we've doubled in size in the last five years. So, more students are finding it. Our graduates all seem to be able to either move into graduate school or find work here in the U.S. or abroad. We have, as Dean mentioned, a dialogue class that's called Inclusive Dialogue that's become increasingly popular. So now we teach it in the fall and spring both and it's open to anyone on campus. And we love having a variety of undergrad and grad students. We've had outside community members take the class and even faculty and administrators sit in on it. And we hope to continue to increase that.

Peace and Conflict also reaches out to other programs and entities in the community. And just briefly, I'll mention our work with Utah Humanities. We're doing Zoom dialogues in the next six weeks, a series on some of these same issues we talked about today. We work with University Neighborhood Partners, working with their program, doing telehealth with under-served communities on the West side. We also work with KRCL on a program called the “Radical Middle,” where we invite guests on the radio and try to help them find a middle ground between their positions.

And just one other last comment that we all know this is an election year. And so one of our efforts is to encourage everyone to have a voice in voting because we always say every election is important, but this one seems important. So, thanks so much for asking that question.

President Watkins: Thank you for all that great and important work. What a privilege today to have remarkable guests. Dean, Dave, thank you for your time. Thank you for your leadership at our university. I'm so deeply grateful for the work you do. Listeners, thanks for joining us, and I hope you'll listen again for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.