Civil Dialogue holds conversation to bridge diverse viewpoints

Participants discussed whether Nelson Mandela was right about outlaws. (Cody Fitzpatrick/DD)

It has become increasingly difficult for people with different viewpoints to come together and have meaningful, constructive discussions following last year’s election.

The Institute for Civil Dialogue’s “Voices: Racial Justice” event was an effort to change that. Around 20 people gathered in Burton Barr Central Library Wednesday evening to hold a conversation designed to build bridges across the chasm of public viewpoints.

“Civil Dialogue is a rather interesting concept that brings together people who probably have different opinions, and allows us to sit down with one another and have a productive conversation, even though we probably have vastly different beliefs,” Clark Olson, president of The Institute for Civil Dialogue, said.

“Voices: Racial Justice” allowed a wide range of community members including parents, high school students and a homeless person to address two controversial statements:

1. “Obama’s presidency did not help black Americans.”
2. “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” — Nelson Mandela

Those topics were selected with Black History Month in mind. Attendants spent about 45 minutes engaging in conversation about each one.

While there was openness among those who volunteered to share their thoughts, there was some uncertainty among the white participants about whether it was right for them to speak authoritatively about racial issues.

Christel Orusede, an African-American woman with a baby, encouraged everyone to speak their mind honestly, regardless of what race they were a part of.

“Race is a relationship, and relationships are difficult,” Orusede said. “If we shy away from what’s uncomfortable, then we’ll never make any progress.”

She went on to explain why she believes there are important benefits to having members of all races chime in on conversations involving racial justice.

This helped bring responses from other participants.

Participant Katey Demmon nervously began her response to Orusede by saying, “I’m not black, obviously, but — ”

The audience erupted with friendly laughter. This brought the whole room closer together, and it allowed Demmon to articulate her point without worrying about whether she was going to offend somebody.

“You absolutely have a right to have an opinion [even though] you’re not African-American,” Orusede said. “Maybe you can’t speak with the experience, but your opinion matters.”

Another Civil Dialogue will take place next Wednesday at The Empty Space in Tempe at 6:30 p.m. The topic will be “Difficult Decisions in Arizona.”

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