It was towards the end of the ’90s and I working as a grant writer for Princeton University. As I was one of the few middle managers who were people of color, I would frequently be invited to committee meetings about diversity. At first, it was ego gratifying, but it soon became exasperating. Typical of Princeton, there were a lot of smart people at these meetings. And they were competitive in the realm of ideas. Meeting would go around in circles, with people making interesting points, but very seldom agreeing on anything.
I became very frustrated with this state of affairs, and told my friends that I was going to do something about this. I didn’t know what exactly, but I was determined somehow to break the status quo. As it happened, I went to a conference sponsored by an education group covertly associated with the Emissaries of the Divine Light. There, I met a physicist who taught at Stanford and who started something called The Integrity Circle, a peer-t0-peer gathering that anyone could attend that he kept going for seven years at Stanford.
He inspired me.
When I got back to Princeton, inspired but still not knowing how I’d honor my pledge to “do something,” I called a meeting of friends across campus. We were a diverse crew. There was the white woman who worked in Human Resources who came to the meeting because she wanted to relate better to the diverse workforce at the school. There was an Indian women who had battled against patriarchal norms both in her home country and in establishing herself in the USA. There was this bearded son-of-the-60s whose daughter went to private school and told him she couldn’t relate to the black students at her school.
After starting the meeting by asking everyone to share why they came to this meeting, I had an epiphany. What we were creating together was a new form of dialogue — although I was unfamiliar with the term at the time. The hallmark of our method was that we’d have a meeting around a diversity-related theme and then conduct a discussion with one ground rule, which we later shortened to “speak from experience.”
We conducted these “diversity circles” for the rest of my four years at Princeton, and I went on to teach others. As part of my preparation for conducting a practicum on the method at the ODNetwork Annual Conference, I learned that there were a lot of folks doing variants of dialogue around the world. Many were inspired by David Bohm, who influenced William Isaacs, whose book I linked to above. I added from these other practitioners and eventually decoupled my dialogue practice from diversity, realizing that it had universal applications.
What distinguished my method from others was the emphasis on personal storytelling.
Since I’ve taught it to many people, I’m pleasantly surprised to find others using it, from South Carolina to South Africa. Through it I’ve come to appreciate the power of story for connecting people. Exchanging stories helps people find common ground.