SALISBURY, MD---Local residents and faculty and students of Salisbury University’s Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution major recently helped build bridges between the community’s politically divided left and right, hosting a Left-Right Dialogue.
Dr. Rachel Goldberg (Democrat) of SU’s Sociology Department and Chris Van Buskirk (Republican) of Faith Baptist School led the initiative, during which SU students spent months interviewing Eastern Shore residents as well as fellow students. Interviewers sought out those strongly committed to their political beliefs and interested in real dialogue with “the other side,” said Goldberg. Both sides said they were concerned about how divided the country is becoming.
“The divide is so deep and so sore that it feels like decisions are being made because ‘our side’ said so or because it is ‘against the other side,’ not because we are actually thinking together about what is best for the country,” Goldberg said.
“The goal of this dialogue was to teach us how to talk to each other again without invective or name-calling,” said Shelton Lankford, a participant from the community. “Our political climate is so polarized right now that we seldom get the chance for meaningful, face-to-face dialogue. Letters to the editor are about as far as it goes.”
Van Buskirk agreed: “The chord that struck with us was that things were getting so partisan and bitter, people didn’t want to cooperate, didn’t want to listen to the other side. We were able to do that in a dialogue that was not a debate. We were there to hear the other side, not convince the other side, and it was very productive.”
The dialogue was inspired by the “Let’s Talk America” model. Thirty-five participants (28 from SU and seven from the community) split up into groups of five and sat at a table, taking turns holding a “talking object” which clearly identified who had the floor. Participants would then answer provocative, straightforward questions. When everyone at the table had said their piece, participants went to other tables and kicked off the discussion by talking about what had surprised or challenged them at the first table. When this had been done several times the entire participant body reflected upon the experience together.
Many felt the group reflection at the end was a very important part of the dialogue. In response to the evaluation form question, “What are you taking away from this experience?” one participant said, “That we can come together even with completely different views on life and find similarities in the underlying themes of what we are trying to say.”
Others said they were excited to reach “common ground on issues I believed would be dividing” and about “listening to everyone and realizing that we all have different views, yet share the same passion for our liberty.” One respondent said the most valuable part of the day was “the moment when I realized I had developed trust in the other side. After I had developed that trust and common ground was possible, I was more able to speak my true feelings.”
Organizers said the dialogue is a chance to speak the heart-felt truth, to understand and to be understood and that such person-to-person communication is capable of transforming conflicts without damaging integrity.
“This brings the chance for real change and hope for healing,” said Goldberg.
“Everybody agreed not only that it was good for the community, but that we want to do it again,” Van Buskirk said. Participants wondered why the dialogue model isn’t employed in the County Council or even the U.S. Congress.
Support for the project came from the Sociology Department, Center for Conflict Resolution and Charles R. and Martha N. Fulton School of Liberal Arts Dean’s Office. For more information call 410-543-6030 or visit the SU Web site at www.salisbury.edu. "