University tensions addressed by Difficult Dialogue

Thursday, October 15, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:30 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 16, 2009

COLUMBIA — Kourtney Mitchell faces racism on a daily basis.

"I definitely experience quite a bit of racism in my own life," said Mitchell, 23, a staff member at the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center. "Everything from straight out institutionalized racism to just very blunt on the street racism."

Future town hall meetings

"Courageous Conversations about Race & Civility: A Dialogue for Everyone"

Town hall and panel discussion — 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 29, Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center

Town hall and community dialogue — 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 19, Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center

For more information, go to:


If you go to a future dialogue, here are the MU Difficult Dialogue Guidelines:

1. Seek to understand, then be understood.

2. Suspend judgments.

3. Honor and share "air time" (1 to 2 minutes at the microphone, no speeches).

4. Be respectful of self and others.

5. Listen actively and intentionally.

6. Maintain open mind about process and content.

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So when Mitchell attended an event on race and civility hosted by the MU Difficult Dialogues program, he had an vested interest.

"It's incredibly important for me, the African-American community and the well-being of our society and community," he said. "People need to be aware of these things."

The event, Courageous Conversations about Race & Civility: A Dialogue for Everyone,was a town hall meeting and an interactive theater held Thursday night in MU's Cornell Hall.

The Difficult Dialogues Initiative is a nationwide program designed to help higher education institutions handle tensions in a university setting. The program is made up of students who act out real-life situations where conflict arises in a civil, interactive way. MU's Difficult Dialogues troupe addresses issues such as race, religion and sexual orientation.

Roger Worthington, MU's chief diversity officer, said the interactive theater is used as a catalyst for dialogue.

"We hope we can create a dialogue at MU for the Columbia community that will actually be more civil and more thoughtful and hopefully more productive," he said.

When Worthington addressed the crowd of nearly 100, he did so in hopes of opening up a conversation in the room.

"We want you to express yourself about controversial subject matter," he said. "Difficult dialogue contains emotions that are real, and we don't want to strip that away."

Worthington and Nathan Stephens, director of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, opened up the floor to the Difficult Dialogues troupe, comprised of five students and a faculty member. The troupe performed "Identity Politics," a skit that delved into the issue of affirmative action on college campuses. The actors performed for the audience and demonstrated the various viewpoints on race and ethnicity present in society. After the skit, audience members had the opportunity to come to the microphone and ask questions that the actors would answer in character.

Open discussion and a short video addressing race issues in society followed the skit.

Worthington said the discourse in America has become more volatile.

"When you look at broader discourse in American culture right now, I think there's a lot of hostility and anger and maybe even hate that is being raised to the surface," he said.

Carolyn Magnuson, a part-time MU faculty adviser for elementary education, said this was her first time attending an interactive theater.

"It absolutely met my expectations, and I was very pleased with what I personally gained from the dialogue and theater," she said. "The whole conversation was excellently facilitated in an expert way."

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