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Rebuilding community

Rebuilding community

Michael Dunekacke March 11, 2021
How to remove, in a very Marianist way, what divides us.

In a divided democracy, the signs of discord can be found everywhere. “Unfriend me” or “unfollow me” have been popular social media posts for distancing ourselves from those not holding the same beliefs.

illustration of 2 figures building a wall
Illustration by Brent Beck

With a click, we remove a point of possible conflict in our lives, and for a moment, we may even feel better. But we’re also removing a friend, family member, colleague or acquaintance — and along with them, we lose an opportunity for understanding and growth.

There’s a better way to respond to this disconnect. The Marianists have modeled it since 1800, and the University of Dayton has embedded it in its education since its founding in 1850. Community building — or rebuilding — requires dialogue and dedication, with rewards for both neighborhood and nation.

Community roots

It arose from the ashes of the French Revolution, when Blessed Father William Joseph Chaminade founded small faith communities called sodalities that brought diverse people together for faith development and prayer. In 1817, one of these communities became the men of the Society of Mary.

“It was clear to him, coming out of the revolution, that Catholics were isolated and needed to come together,” said Brother Thomas Giardino, S.M. ’65, assistant for special projects in the Office for Mission and Rector and a member of UD’s board of trustees. “He shaped a space, or a structure, that gathered diverse people in their gifts so they could build relationships by joining regularly in frequent reunions.”

Giardino knows that current Marianists often get kidded that the abbreviation for the Society of Mary stands for “still meeting,” but coming together frequently to develop greater understanding is exactly what our nation needs right now, he said. Flyers are already working toward that change.

When Elise Clement, a junior mechanical engineering major from the Cleveland area, saw a “just-unfriend-me-now” message from a friend and fellow UD student, she made a more difficult choice. She started a conversation. A dialogue.

Clement is the president of Middle Ground, a UD student organization whose mission is “to encourage people to voice their concerns and to raise awareness to overlooked elements of our society and world.” And they do that through dialogue.

Although there is no list of steps necessary for dialogue, Clement said that Middle Ground events generally follow guidelines that ensure that participants show respect and seek understanding above all.

According to Clement, this involves stepping out of your comfort zone to begin the conversation and choosing to actively listen to seek understanding. That’s the goal. Winning is not proving your point. Winning is understanding.

... this involves stepping out of your comfort zone to begin the conversation and choosing to actively listen to seek understanding. That’s the goal. Winning is not proving your point. Winning is understanding.

“When you’re going in with an intent to have a dialogue, it’s really just a mindset to fully listen to someone and fully grasp what they’re trying to say,” Clement said. “The biggest choice is to listen and take it in. You can do that by beginning with mindfulness. That’s what we ask of people at the beginning of our conversations, or dialogues. Just be mindful and take that extra time to fully listen.”

Entering into dialogue about a point of difference isn’t the easy decision, but growth rarely comes without some risk.

Jason Combs, principal lecturer for UD’s Department of Communication and director of the Dialogue Zone in Roesch Library, helps create spaces for dialogue across campus and, lately, on the video platform Zoom. Combs says that the work of dialogue is embracing the difference and appreciating those differences, which can be hard.

“A lot of times people don’t feel confident about how to engage difference,” said Combs. And he acknowledges the risks. “People feel the risk like, ‘If I tell you what I really think, then there’s a chance you may reject me. You may criticize me.’”

Fear can lead to avoidance. Combs says Flyers instead learn by leaning into the differences.

Giardino found himself in a position similar to Clement’s before the recent presidential election when he spoke with a cousin.

“We ordinarily talk about family and things like that,” said Giardino. “As we got close to the election, it was clear to me that we were on different pages when it came to who we were going to vote for and the way we thought about that.”

Their initial reaction was to set aside the difference and laugh it off as their votes canceling out each other, but after a few days of reflection, Giardino reached out again.

“I called her up so that we could talk, so I could try to understand where she was coming from and, hopefully, she could do the same thing,” said Giardino. “And I’d like to think that what gave me some of the motivation, courage if you will, to do that with her is having to do that in my local Marianist community.”

Porch lessons

As a Flyer, you likely at some point defined your local community as the residence hall or neighborhood you shared with other students.

One of the lessons learned is that living together isn’t always easy, but it does create opportunities to discuss differences and see what works or why something isn’t working.

“Think about the student neighborhood. At one level, the student neighborhood is a risk,” said Giardino. “The neighborhood is high risk, but it’s also high reward. Folks are learning how to live together. They’re working, going to classes, and all of a sudden nobody’s cleaning the dishes ... and they really have to figure out how to live together.”

Those life-learning skills radiate from each house to a wider community. Giardino points to Christmas on Campus or the UD Summer Appalachia Program. Neither of these experiences would be available to UD students if they were unable to build and maintain the trust and connection with the communities in Dayton and Salyersville, Kentucky.

“That’s what we constantly are trying to do,” said Giardino about the efforts to build community and social trust. “It’s what Father Chaminade did.”

Public life

Bringing diverse people together to work through their differences for a common purpose may start on campus, but UD graduates continue that work as they leave campus and join communities around the world.

Timothy Shaffer ’06 earned his master’s degrees in theological studies and public administration at UD. He is now an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies and director of the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University.

The institute is nonpartisan and interdisciplinary, and it started in 2004 in response to political polarization and the acknowledgment that public issues are inherently complex.

“We talk about them as wicked problems,” said Shaffer. “They’re not technical issues. They’re not solvable in the way like, ‘Oh, a streetlight is out. Let me call the people who fix the streetlight.’”

The institute focuses on communication with people for democratic decision- making as a central, key element to our public life.

“We want to have a robust, diverse, civil society, but to make that work, we need to actually have the ability to talk to each other.”

“We want to have a robust, diverse civil society, but to make that work, we need to actually have the ability to talk to each other,” said Shaffer.

Of course, political polarization isn’t a new problem. Shaffer said since Hamilton was released as a movie in July 2020, his 3-year-old routinely runs through the house with one finger raised yelling, “My shot!” And, of course, that all revolved around a contested election in 1800.

In the past six months, as we all witnessed our nation’s latest election drama, we saw how quickly situations can descend into chaos when people are so polarized.

“This is where the civility stuff can turn a lot of people off,” said Shaffer. “Because they’re thinking, ‘The world is burning, and you’re asking me to sit down and talk? This is a moment for action.’ Well, in a lot of respects that’s true. There are times when protest politics, or kind of being in your face, is sometimes really necessary. But then we need to come back to a place to say, ‘OK, so what do we do about these things that maybe now we’re more aware of?’”

Part of the answer is to create a space and a process for people to meet in dialogue, as Combs does on campus.

“I think sometimes in the beginning of a dialogue you need these specialized spaces where people can come to the table and understand that the goal in this space is understanding, not victory over each other,” said Combs.

Dialogue zone

Creating a space for dialogue doesn’t necessarily mean a physical space. A part of creating space for dialogue is educating people about it.

Illustration of 2 figures tearing down a wall
Illustration by Brent Beck

“People have to have an understanding at a more conceptual level of dialogue,” said Combs. Part of that involves understanding. “We can have different viewpoints, but we don’t have to see each other as adversaries. We don’t have to try and overcome each other.

“If our goal is to build understanding, then there’s not necessarily a winner or a loser. When people understand this, it’s kind of a freeing concept, and people can carry that lens for understanding forward.”

For Shaffer, building understanding is critical to the democratic process, and it’s been guiding him since his time at UD.

“From my days in theology and public administration to where I am now is this question of, ‘How do we live well with one another?’” said Shaffer. “So, we can ask this in really big ways, and we can ask it in really practical ways.

“For me it shows up in civil discourse work. Because if we can honestly and candidly step into that sense of being in relationship with one another and live well, whatever that means to you, then that’s a disposition that allows us to articulate and surface those things that shape who we are.”

Common ground

As Clement found in her campus conversations, when people with opposing views come together and honestly share their differing beliefs, they often realize that they have more in common than they thought.

“I’m lucky enough to have friends whom I love dearly, and we have very different views on certain things,” said Clement. “We constantly have conversations about them, and I know from experience that it really helps me evaluate why I believe something and understand and empathize with them.

“I may not agree with them, but we’re still great friends. And we still have a lot more in common than we have differences.”

For Clement, this is critical in how we move forward from the current political divide and bring society closer together.

“I think about that all the time, and it’s hard,” said Clement. “The first step is making people aware that it often starts one to one in conversation, and it takes someone willing to both talk and to understand.”

“The first step is making people aware that it often starts one to one in conversation, and it takes someone willing to both talk and to understand.”

This is a learned skill that the University is committed to developing. From the founding of the Marianists, to creating a space like the student neighborhood, to developing the Dialogue Zone three years ago, to embedding dialogue in the curriculum, the campus community is consistently modeling the behavior and processes that can move our entire nation together — one person at a time.

“Our students are constantly learning these skills, and they’re developing these open attitudes,” said Combs, who noted that all UD students are experiencing the work of dialogue as a part of their Communication 100 classes.

“When these students enter the workforce and the community at large, I think we’ll all be a lot better off for it because they are able to engage people who have different views and not close off from them,” said Combs.

Giardino calls this creating “agents of unity” for building community.

“We need to be very intentional about modeling what unity in diversity looks like today,” said Giardino. “It can be a witness to the outside world, but from the inside world you’re really forming agents of unity.”

Giardino explains this by sharing how Chaminade always wanted the community to be attractive and to embody good news and for the members to experience what unity could look like no matter who is a part of the community.

“That way,” said Giardino, “wherever you go, you have some idea about how to develop unity because you’ve actually experienced it, including all the nonsense that can go on.”

The Marianists and the University of Dayton have been modeling this behavior from their beginnings, through cycles of disconnect in our nation and the world. As one alumnus said, now is a time when we can all look at what we’ve learned as members of the UD community and consciously take that out with us into our interactions with others.

“We need to do better and, especially at the local level, we can,” said Shaffer. “If we have the capacity to engage in sustained dialogue, then we have the possibility of consensus on some things. And that’s where we can make some steps forward.

“We make the road by walking, and frankly, I think we need to walk.”


More than just talk

Junior Elise Clement, president of Middle Ground, offers five tips for creating your own successful dialogue.

  1. Remember: The goal of dialogue is understanding, not winning. A dialogue is not a debate. Go in with an open mind and seek to gain understanding. 
  2. Actively listen. Really listening is a skill that takes work. A good way to make sure you understand a point is to rephrase it and ask if your understanding is correct.
  3. Honor the perspective and background of the other person. Don’t enter a dialogue with assumptions about someone else’s experiences or opinions.
  4. Ask open clarifying questions. Avoid asking a lot of questions that can be answered with a yes or no
  5. Offer your perspectives based on your own experiences. Use examples you’ve experienced and avoid generalizations.

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