April 9, 2003: On the Campus

Talking about race
Small groups explore prejudices and preconceptions

By Kristin Roper ’03

Illustration: Ron Barret

One evening last fall, President Tilghman hosted a dinner at her house. Professor Cornel West *80 was there, but the real guests of honor were 10 undergraduates who had committed to meet regularly to discuss race at Princeton. Tilghman and West eagerly accepted the invitation to participate in this dinner group, one of 10 such groups that meet as part of the Sustained Dialogue program.

“It is a symbolic endorsement of working on race relations on campus. The president is saying, ‘I’m committing time to this. This is important to Princeton,’” says Tshepo Masango ’03, the Sustained Dialogue moderator who invited Tilghman and West to join the group.

Sustained Dialogue, a process for changing relationships and combating deeply rooted human conflicts, was developed by Harold Saunders ’52, the director of international affairs at the Kettering Foundation, which researches ways to improve the practice of democratic politics.

Five years ago, Teddy Nemeroff ’01 and David Tukey ’02 went to the university administration with their concerns about race relations on campus. They were put in touch with Saunders, who had spent 20 years with the U.S. government negotiating and mediating for peace in the Middle East and central Asia. Together, the students and Saunders adapted his Sustained Dialogue model for use on campus.

For two hours over a meal, groups of 10 to 15 undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, and administrators meet once every two weeks. “Race is talked about in such abstract terms on this campus. People can cop out from looking at the real issues,” Masango says. “My number-one priority is to bring a diverse body of students, administrators, and faculty together to discuss race on a level that moves beyond the intellectual and gets to the personal. My job is to make people feel uncomfortable. If you feel uncomfortable, you’re more likely to think about the issues.”

These issues can be broad — race relations, class, gender, faith, and sexuality — or specific — minorities on Prospect Avenue, the economic disparity between races, and interracial dating. The groups are open only to invited guests, and all conversation is confidential. “As a white person, it has helped me to understand what happens on this campus on a daily basis, what a minority student has to go through, and what it is to be prejudiced,” says Josephine Decker ’03, a Sustained Dialogue moderator.

“People often say, you’re just talking – it doesn’t change anything. Talking does a tremendous amount. With 125 participants, there is a ripple effect,” says Jessica Munitz ’03, one of the program’s student leaders.

University officials are behind Sustained Dialogue, which is part of a larger initiative, Dialogue@Princeton. That program is funded by a three-year, $225,000 grant from the Bildner Family Foundation.

The program also is used overseas. The handbook Diving In, written by Nemeroff and Tukey, which introduces the five stages of Sustained Dialogue and discusses how to start them on campuses, is being translated for use in Tajikistan, where Saunders started Sustained Dialogue in 1993. Likewise, Munitz’s forthcoming manual about the challenges of leading campus dialogues on race, Moderating Sustained Dialogue: A Manual for Facilitators of Dialogues on Race, also will be translated and used in Tajikistan.

Janet Dickerson, vice president for campus life, says a key part of the program’s future success will be attracting as many points of view as possible.

She also wants more nonminorities to get involved. “Right now we have an underrepresentation of men and more people of color than whites. We need to get more faculty involved, and we need to get more whites, men, and people who view themselves as in the mainstream,” Dickerson says. (U.S. minorities and international students constitute 34.8 percent of Princeton’s undergraduate population.)

The administration’s commitment bodes well for Sustained Dialogue having a long life at at Princeton. Enthusiasm for the program has transmitted the message to other campuses; the University of Virginia, Dickinson College, and Franklin Pierce College all have implemented Sustained Dialogue.

As for Jessica Munitz, she recently received a Reach Out ’56 fellowship, and she will spend next year working with Saunders and the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue to help promote the program in the U.S. and abroad.


Kristin Roper ’03 is an art and archaeology major from Alpine, New Jersey. You can reach her at kroper@princeton.edu.


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