Chautauqua Dialogues delve into civil discourse

A mishmash of Chautauquans — some veterans of the Institution, some first-timers; some older, some in college; some Christian, some atheist — sit in a circle in the basement library of the Everett Jewish Life Center.

Each person in the circle wears a white, rectangular nametag.





First names only.

“Just don’t stick the nametag to the plastic Gate Pass holder,” one person said. “It’s ridiculously hard to peel off.”

Their small group of 15 is one of the Chautauqua Dialogues groups. Other circles bloom at venues such as the Methodist House and Catholic House. The conversations take place from 3:30 to 5 p.m. every Friday, after the afternoon Interfaith Lecture. Chautauqua Dialogues is a Department of Religion initiative that gets Chautauquans to engage in civil discourse.

Roger Doebke, one of the four founding members, said it’s an experiment.

After Communities in Conversation — a program that had the same goals but brought in religious leaders to give talks and answer questions — failed to actually stimulate conversation, Doebke said they devised Chautauqua Dialogues.

“What we found was that that question and answer thing actually didn’t develop dialogue. It was simply Q-and-A. People weren’t taking away any kind of an idea,” he said.

Three years and a “facilitation handbook” later, Chautauqua Dialogues has brought in about 600 people each season, and people are walking away with the big-picture takeaways Doebke dreamt of.

“Sometimes in these dialogues, you will see transformation in the dialogue,” he said. “This happens more frequently when the topic focuses on some social justice issue, like say incarceration. Sometimes, there will be a very emotional topic, and you’ll have people leave the group saying, ‘I totally changed my thought about this. I’m just in a totally different place now than when I came in.’ ”

Doebke and other facilitation leaders manage the dialogues in ways that encourage everyone to participate and focus on the themes of each week’s Interfaith Lectures.

The “first name thing” was one such way the facilitators “level the playing field” of people in the group.

“We’d have people come into groups and assert themselves as having some great expertise or the exclusive truth — that they just wanted to let people know what the world was really like,” Doebke said. “We had to find a way to come over that.”

There are other methods the facilitators use to ease conversation.

The “big picture thing,” Doebke said, allows everyone in the group to introduce themselves by saying what resonated with them throughout the week in a couple sentences.

“That actually had the unintentional consequence of allowing us to see what was on everybody’s mind, and they see where we should direct conversation,” Doebke said. “Three or four people will mention something — that always happens — so you can start with that because you have some type of commonality to start developing a thread with.”

In groups, there is always someone who tries to dominate the conversation or makes a biased point, Doebke said. That’s why they have the “meta thing.”

When a “conversation stopper” occurs, the facilitator will call attention to it. If someone quotes a statistic from Fox News, for example, Doebke said that instantly sets off any liberals in the group and conversation stalls because of it.

“If you had mentioned this idea without attribution, that wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

The facilitators are constantly learning and working to improve the flow of the dialogues, so that everyone feels comfortable speaking up and no one runs away with the session, Doebke said.

Additional learning is also important for the attendees of the sessions.

“I’m always interested in hearing other people’s opinions,” said Anita, one of Doebke’s group members last Friday. “From what people say, I learn what motivates them.”

For Winona, another member of Doebke’s group, the interest was in finding out what hit home for other people.

“I think it gave me a much better perspective of how the lectures are interpreted by the larger audience of Chautauqua,” she said. “I had hoped certain people were taking certain things from the lectures and it was interesting to see what people had actually received.”

Winona said that, although she typically discusses the lectures with her friends or joins in on porch talks about the topics, Chautauqua Dialogues helped her get a better idea of how the lectures had been interpreted by other members of the community.

“I absolutely love engaging in the dialogue,” she said. “I think it’s definitely an integral part of Chautauqua.”

Week Eight’s group brought up the need for local action in their communities and acceptance of others in their conversation. They also discussed privilege and education.

While topics emerge from the weeks’ themes, Doebke said sometimes the conversations take surprising turns. Week Five was one such instance.

“Everyone assumed — especially since it was on Friday and everyone would be coming right to the dialogue — that the topic was really going to be about Scientology,” he said. “And it didn’t turn out to be so.”

Despite having Sylvia Stanard, that Friday’s lecturer on the topic of Scientology, present in Doebke’s group, the focus was on Native Americans.

“It actually turned out that there was much greater interest in [Tink Tinker] and what he had to say than there ever was in Scientology. It was so dramatic,” he said. “Sometimes you’re very surprised by what resonates the most with people.”