Practical Dialogue and Creative Deliberation

One of my first teachers with regard to dialogue was the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. My mother is professor emeritus at University of San Francisco, where she immersed her doctoral students in transformative education and participatory research. She invited Paulo to the U.S. several times to work with her students, and he soon became a family friend.

In the Freirean approach to dialogue, working with participants’ burning issues is key; thus, practical actions and new possibilities with regard to pressing life circumstances are as much a part of the conversation, as questioning established meanings and arriving at soulful insights into human values.

Furthermore, writing down participants’ contributions, all of them, and then using these words to create communal texts, is a powerful aspect of Freirean practice, at least in the way that my mother adapted it for her work with migrant farmworker parents in California.

There are many parallels between the practice of Freirean dialogue and Dynamic Facilitation, the work that Jim Rough created and which I later codified into a manual. Yet Paulo was never one of Jim’s many unnamed sources of inspiration, and consequently Jim and I have had strong differences about the “nature of dialogue”.

As much as I value and admire David Bohm’s work, I find myself deeply resistant to reducing all forms of dialogue to the Bohmian prototype. Instead, I draw my inspiration from Juanita Brown’s famous quote, where she says,

“When I thought about Dialogue in this larger sense, I had the image of the open central courtyard in an old-fashioned, Latin American home like the one I lived in as a teenager with my adopted grandmother in Southern Mexico. You entered the house itself through the single carved front door facing outward to the street Once inside the house you could enter the central courtyard by going around and through any of the multiple arched entryways that surrounded this open, flower-filled space in the middle of the house. This courtyard was lovely, with flowers everywhere and trees growing in large clay pots.”

“For me, Dialogue is like entering this central courtyard in the spacious home of our common human experience. There are many doorways to this central courtyard, just as there are many points of entry to the experience of Dialogue. Indigenous councils, salons, study circles, women’s circles, farm worker house meetings, wisdom circles, non- traditional diplomatic efforts, and other conversational modalities from many cultures and historical periods had both contributed to and drawn from the generative space that we were calling Dialogue.” (Brown, 2001).

For Jim, as for many people from the U.S. and Europe, dialogue has meant Bohmian dialogue. As such, he has positioned his own work as “not dialogue.”

As someone from the Global South, I have a different perspective. One of the differences this makes in practice, is my approach toward the charts.

From one perspective, by the end of a session or series of sessions, the charts have largely served their purpose. The “transformation in the moment” is what matters.

Yet for me, the charts are a living document, a valuable repository of the collective knowledge and wisdom of the people who took part in the process. I enjoy harvesting them afterward, in a process of “light sorting” that I developed from my training in action research. This part of my work has also been deeply inspired by my early experiences with the Freirean process of creating participatory texts that honor the rich diversity present in a human group.

Brown, J. (2001). The World Café: Living knowledge through conversations that matter. Ph.D. dissertation for the Fielding Institute.

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