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Partnering with Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, the Institute facilitates dialogue between members of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities. After a successful kick-off retreat in which the members built and strengthened their interpsonal connections and understanding, the members have scheduled to meet monthly to continue their bridge building work. Members of the group hope to create or sponsor initiatives that will build greater understanding among Christians, Jews and Muslims throughout Houston.
The Institute facilitates dialogue between leaders of Houston’s Jewish and Muslim communities in collaboration with Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston. These groups:
In 2011-12 the ISP partnered with The Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University to help design and facilitate the Connecting Communities Project which began in late 2011. The project brought together 51 diverse, local community leaders from four demographic groups (Anglo, Hispanic, African-American, and Asian) to address how to assure that Houston makes a successful transition to an inclusive, equitable, united multi-ethnic society in the next several decades.
The Kinder Institute staff, including its two renowned co-directors, Steve Klineberg and Michael Emerson, brought the rich results of its deep research into Houston's demographics and cultural makeup. Randall Butler, CEO of the ISP, facilitated five meetings in which the working group sought to develop concrete answers to three fundamental questions:
During the last meeting of the project, in September of 2012, the participants finalized their recommendations for concrete initiatives and policy changes.
The Pathways to Trust initiative, a joint collaboration with Texans Together and the City of Houston, comprised a series of community building projects at The Mint Apartment Complex in the Alief neighborhood of Houston beginning in 2009. Pathways to Trust combined direct service provision, community organizing, and training/dialogue work to meet the immediate needs of residents while also building capacity for long-term social change.
Our joint goal was to bring residents together across perceived divides of ethnicity, income, language, and religion, and to support their efforts to work together to address pressing social issues of violence, high dropout rates, and lack of afterschool programs. The approach was to address immediate community needs, namely for health care and human services, while planting the seeds for a greater sense of community by training and empowering residents to create a more positive future for themselves and their neighbors.
The Institute took on the training and dialogue dimensions of the project. Following the City of Houston’s AIM work (Assessment, Intervention and Mobilization) and Texans Together’s expert organizing efforts, our role was to facilitate a series of dialoges at The Mint using the Appreciative Inquiry method. The purpose of the dialogues was to build trust, to empower residents to collaborate across cultural barriers, and to address common concerns and envision community-driven solutions. Bilingual volunteers were able to facilitate conversations between residents who had never spoken before due to language barriers, but who soon discovered they shared similar concerns.
Appreciative Inquiry is a method of bringing about change that leverages the positive aspects of a community to correct the negative. As such, the ISP-led dialogues were highly participatory and focused on assessing the strengths of the community, rather than just the “problems.” Case Western Reserve University used Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as the foundation for a successful community building project in a troubled Ohio neighborhood, and AI was a cornerstone of the Pathways to Trust dialogues as well.
What if it were possible…
The Institute for Sustainable Peace (ISP), partnering with ACR Houston and the American Leadership Forum, hosted a Candidate Café Dialogue on Tuesday, September 11, 2012, at the United Way of Houston. In a highly contentious election season, this event allowed constituents to converse with candidates – in person – about the big issues facing our region rather than listen to debates and canned stump speeches. More importantly for our purpose, many of the participating citizens and candidates experienced dialogue for the first time and went away with an appreciation for an alternative perspective on the potential for a more civil and constructive political discourse.
Thirty-one candidates for office at the county, state, and national levels joined 75 fellow Houston-area residents in collaborative dialogue to respond to three positive, open-ended questions posed to the entire room. Participating candidates included those running for U.S. Congress, the state House and Senate, and county Commissioners Court as well as judicial offices.
The dialogue occurred in three rounds, with non-candidate participants changing tables after each round. The questions for each round in succession were:
Comments about the experience were positive from candidates and citizens alike. “The dialogue was thought-provoking and fruitful as well as fun. I really enjoyed it,” Hon. Josephina Rendon. “What a great experience! I truly enjoyed the dialogue and true connection with people,” Nory Angel. “I hope it continues to grow with each election cycle,” candidate David Collins. Candidate Ann Bennett wrote a note addressed to the ISP CEO. She stated: “Thank you for the opportunity to dialogue as a candidate in last week’s Candidate Café Dialogue. It was a very powerful experience… I like what you are doing, and wish you the very best.” In addition, several candidates expressed a desire to hold similar events in their districts.
We recorded much of the event on video, including comments of participants about the dialogue process. We also obtained interviews from several individuals, including two candidates for the same seat in the Texas House of Representatives. Some of the interviews were recorded before the start of the dialogue and others after its conclusion. You may view the video on our YouTube channel via the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NO8LlvQWa34&feature=youtu.be
Once a month, the Institute hosted a Café Dialogue in collaboration with the community-minded restaurant the Breakfast Klub. Each Café Dialogue brought together a cross-section of Houston to discuss a set of questions related to non-controversial, community building topics critical to Houston’s future. The event was open to all, and attracted participants of diverse ages, faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds. The Café Dialogues introduced basic principles of nonviolent communication and cooperative problem solving in a fun social environment.
Participants sat in groups of four, all discussing the same question and following rules of communication designed to evoke collective wisdom. After each question, participants changed tables, shared with their new group the conversations they had just completed, and moved on to the next question. Each successive question took participants deeper into the issue, and the final question was always about the action each individual could take in the next thirty days to make a difference.
Café Dialogues served several purposes. First and most importantly, they introduced community members who might otherwise never cross paths. In a nonthreatening, neutral environment, Houstonians had a chance to learn about one another and ask questions that might be uncomfortable in a different setting. What is Ismailism? What was it like to grow up as an African American in Houston?
Second, Cafe Dialogue participants addressed real issues of community building and diversity. Participants reported that they had taken concrete action steps in the days and weeks following a Café Dialogue to make some needed change they identified during their conversation.
Finally, Café Dialogues taught people communication skills to use in their families, workplaces, houses of worship, and other arenas. Participants often asked if they could be trained as Café Dialogue facilitators so that they could host similar events within their own communities to address specific needs and issues.