Program opens discussion to better understand SDSU, community diversity


Laura Butterbrodt

The Difference is Dialogue program is an effort by the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Access to initiate conversations about personal differences and change the community culture to include more diverse populations.

Nathan Ziegler, director of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Access, said this program is way for people to understand others’ differences by listening, rather than debating or arguing.

“It’s good to enter into spaces where we’re uncomfortable and where our beliefs are challenged,” Ziegler said. “I want people to embrace that discomfort and kind of be brave and come into the conversation with an open mind.”

About 80 South Dakota State University students, faculty and staff, along with Brookings community members, meet five times throughout the semester to have small-group discussions about controversial topics in society and personal identities. So far, there have been three meetings.

“It’s not something where you have to walk into a conversation feeling like you’ve studied up or researched, or are an expert on whatever topic we’re bringing forward.”

Associate director for living-learning and outreach

Semehar Ghebrekidan, a Difference is Dialogue facilitator and graduate administrative assistant in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Access, said it’s important to have a discussion about why people believe what they do, rather than becoming angry at a person and saying they’re “wrong.”

“Those sit-down conversations about why we think the way we think and why we are the way we are and what we can learn from each other is always important,” Ghebrekidan said.

The Difference is Dialogue kicked off with a town hall meeting of roughly 300 people hosted by Ziegler. Although the event was a great discussion, Ziegler said not all voices could be heard, which is why the meetings are designed to host smaller groups of 15 to 20 people.

Once the members are comfortable with each other, they can have discussions about their differences in gender, race, sexuality, ability or disability, socio-economic class, political beliefs or life experiences.

“We’re really comfortable with the idea of ‘no pain, no gain’ when we talk about working out and our physical self, but no one really applies that to the mental self and your emotional being,” said Theresa Ireland, a facilitator and a student services facilitator for Continuing & Distance Education.

What each group discusses is confidential, but Ziegler said relevant topics could be the #MeToo campaign or the Charlottesville rally. He added other general topics relating to privilege and identity can also be discussed. The facilitators of the groups help come up with ideas, then group members can vote on what they feel is most relevant to them.

“It’s not something where you have to walk into a conversation feeling like you’ve studied up or researched, or are an expert on whatever topic we’re bringing forward,” said Toby Uecker, a facilitator and associate director for living-learning and outreach for the Department of Housing and Residential Life.

Uecker said he can see micro-changes in his group members at each meeting, whether it’s better self-awareness or a new understanding of another’s situation. Ireland said her group members have made connections between what they’ve talked about in their meetings and what they see in real life.

Having these dialogues are important to make “a community that is inclusive, rather than just saying it’s inclusive,” Uecker said.

Ziegler said social media has had a huge impact on the way people have conversations. Comments on social media turn into debates and arguments, rather than people trying to understand where one another is coming from. Ziegler said he wants to get away from that.

“I want people to listen,” Ziegler said. “Just stop talking, stop texting, stop Facebooking and listen to people.”

The Difference Is Dialogue program reached capacity this semester because there weren’t enough facilitators to lead groups larger than 20 students, but Ghebrekidan said she hopes as the program continues and more people express interest, more people will facilitate.

The program will be available again next semester and Ziegler plans to continue offering it each semester.