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Forum invites sustained dialogue on community issues

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Philip Stewart
Philip Stewart

The public is invited to participate in a Nov. 11 discussion and workshop on sustained dialogue at First Presbyterian Church. It will be presented by Philip Stewart, founding board member and secretary of the International Institute of Sustained Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

The 2 p.m. discussion is presented by the Interfaith Forum of Columbus as part of its 2012 Reconciliation Day programming.

During the discussion, Stewart will present the basics of sustained dialogue, a communication process that focuses on the relationships that underlie, and often propagate, a particular issue. Participants in such discussions often find that they have many differences in terms of background and identity, but share common concerns within the community.

“This way, instead of confrontation, you suddenly have a conversation,” Stewart said. Once those barriers to communication have been removed, he said the group can more effectively brainstorm solutions and devise a plan to correct the common concerns.

The goal of next month’s discussion is to discern whether there is enough interest in the community to engage in the process of sustained dialogue, which would take place over several months or years.

Stewart said the key to successful sustained dialogue is participation from those who hold a variety of opinions and perspectives. He said that when a plan to solve a particular problem is looked at from only one angle, those who share that particular view spend precious time and resources trying to sell others on its value. The process of sustained dialogue, however, takes into account multiple perspectives on an issue, thereby reducing the need to convince others the plan can work.

The groups that take part in these discussions should represent various demographics and interests, including community leaders as well as regular citizens, Stewart said.

“We want the people in room to be the carriers of the problem, but also those who have the resources to solve it,” Stewart said.

Stewart was invited last May to participate in an Interfaith Forum discussion by his sister, Merry Carmichael, a longtime Columbus resident.

During preliminary planning for the event, potential topics came up, including the status of public education and a growing polarization of the community along political lines.

Stewart said he thinks Columbus has a great capacity for effecting change through this technique, citing its higher-than-average education, income and diversity rates as key indicators of success.

“Columbus has the capacity to achieve whatever it wants to achieve,” he said.

Stewart and his colleagues have made a career of tackling tough issues with sustained dialogue, including helping three Jewish institutions in Oakland, Calif., navigate views on how to make the community more inclusive. He also spent several years bringing together different political groups in Iraq.

If You Go

What: “Reconciling Relationships, Partnerships, Families, Neighborhoods, Communities, Countries, and Beyond” by Philip Stewart

Where: First Presbyterian Church, 512 7th St.

When: Sunday, Nov. 11 from 2 to 4:30 p.m.

The discussion and workshop are free and open to the public, but organizers request that attendees make a reservation beforehand by calling 812-372-6116.

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