Letter to the Editor: On the problematic promotion of dialogue

We, the Sustained Dialogue leadership team, a group of five students that work closely with the office of Social Justice Education and our fellow students to run the SD program, would like to address recent and ongoing co-optation of our program and dialogue in general as solutions to racism and other systems of oppression on campus. Sustained Dialogue was brought to Northwestern in 2013 to radically promote conversations about power and privilege across identity. It was meant as a tool with which to work toward dismantling racism on campus, which is rooted in the structural advantages that are afforded to white students, staff and faculty while non-white members of the NU community remain marginalized. In the most recent rounds of statements on diversity and inclusion issued by our administration to address racist systems and the effects that they have on students, Sustained Dialogue has been repeatedly held up as an example of the University’s commitment to improve student experience.

We want to acknowledge the ways that Sustained Dialogue has become co-opted at this university. The administration has begun using Sustained Dialogue as an answer in and of itself to address issues of oppression at NU. We are tired of the university using dialogue as a response to clear student demands. We are tired of getting emails encouraging dialogue, or name-dropping our program, as if it is the only way to make changes on campus. We find that it both minimizes and dismisses marginalized experiences on campus. Students have spoken in large numbers about what the university can do to work toward racial justice, or foster the “diversity” and practice the “inclusion” they market so well. This requires many forms of action, not just dialogue.

We want to make this clear: Dialogue is an important tool for having conversations surrounding power and privilege, and it can push counter narratives on this campus that have long been ignored. However, it cannot be the only tool. If we choose to solely address issues of oppression through Sustained Dialogue, this program will become part of the problem. We must support other forms of action that are just as important, including (but not limited to) protests, petitions, art and healing spaces. We must remember that existing, thriving and self-care are also powerful forms of resistance.

As an organization that promotes dialogue on campus, it is our job to ensure Sustained Dialogue pushes to fundamentally alter oppressive systems and challenge dominant narratives; we are responsible for actively working toward transformational justice and liberation at NU. At the end of the 2014-15 school year, we identified what we believed to be the most urgent areas for improvement within the program. Our dialogue groups have become whiter and have at times betrayed the safe and challenging spaces they were designed to be. Going into this year, we are still dedicated to ensuring that these dynamics are addressed. We are also focused on engaging more with campus activism, enhancing the training and education of our moderators, being more intentional about promoting counter-narratives, improving the experiences of participants with marginalized identities and holding ourselves accountable for our impact. These goals have been the motivation for new policies, initiatives, and programming within Sustained Dialogue that we hope will contribute to bettering the organization.

We understand that everyone has room for growth in understanding oppression, power and privilege. Sustained Dialogue is a space in which all NU students can learn from one another. Whether or not you are actively engaged in these conversations already, if you are willing to speak truth to your experience and challenge yourself, we invite you to join Sustained Dialogue; and then we challenge you to seek out the many other options you have on this campus for challenging oppressive systems.

In the past few years, discourses have altered and shifted, but the history of white supremacy that NU was founded upon remains present on our campus whether we can all see it or not. It is our role as students to listen to each other, to change, to be changed and to participate in change that goes beyond self-improvement and learning the language of diversity.

We send our support for all of the demands listed by black students at NU, and we are in solidarity with students fighting for a more just campus. If the administration stands with Sustained Dialogue, they can show it by implementing these urgent and tangible demands.


Sustained Dialogue Leadership Team:
Ariana Seals
Kate Gladstone
Matt Herndon
Vicky Ho
Xiomara Contreras