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Dialogues for Deep Change
Dialogues for Deep Change

There are too many places in the world torn by conflict and too many displaced people and communities. Historical ethnic conflicts such as those that led to the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and the Yugoslav wars and political conflicts have led to the scattering of millions of people from their traditional homelands. Fleeing violence and suppression, these Diasporas take refuge where they can, often in distant countries where they face social and economic hardship, customs and language barriers and where, in many instances, they come face to face with members of the tribal, ethnic, or political groups from which they originally fled.

While national and international groups such as the UN High Commission on Refugees and regional immigrant and refugee organizations have done much to help facilitate a positive transition for migrants displaced from their homelands, little has been done to bring fractured communities together in dialogue to ameliorate traumas incurred during conflicts that still affect refugee populations in their new contexts.

The great American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that peace is attained through understanding. One way to gain understanding is through communication and dialogue. Portland State University Professor of Conflict Resolution Barbara Tint has written a manual that provides a framework for conducting assessment, dialogue groups, dialogue training, and capacity-building efforts in Diaspora communities: Diasporas in Dialogue: A Manual for Dialogue, Transition and Community Reconciliation.

The culmination of the three-year African Diaspora Dialogue Project (ADDP), Diasporas in Dialogue is “predicated on the belief that historical conflicts from home regions were travelling with migrant populations and being left unattended in the Diaspora.” The ADDP and the manual address what Dr. Tint states is “the need and the opportunity to provide a safe forum for the community members to come together to address their fractured past, their difficult present, and their hope for a different future.” 

The ADDP was supported by a grant from the Andrus Family Fund and is a partnership between the Conflict Resolution Graduate Program at PSU and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO). Dr. Tint led a multi-national team of students, faculty members, IRCO staff members and Diaspora community members in conducting this project and writing the manual.

“The project tapped into a significant need in the community,” Dr. Tint said recently. “Refugee communities from many regions were arriving in Portland with unresolved historical issues that were not being addressed in resettlement efforts. We reached out to Djimet Dogo, the Director of Africa House here in Portland, and within a year we were working with African communities from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Rwanda and Somalia, building the capacity to train community members to be capable and effective in dealing with community issues and also to create a more unified and supportive African Diaspora.”

Diasporas in Dialogue is the compilation of the experiences and lessons learned during the three year ADDP. The manual provides both a theoretical and practical guide to dialogue for community groups, conflict resolution practitioners, refugee service agencies and academics. While the manual is derived from the work within the African communities, the lessons it contains and the model for dialogue are relevant for working with any refugee or immigrant community.

“The goal of the manual,” Dr. Tint said, ‘was to take the best practices and put them into the hands of people who could replicate the work. In the process of a dialogue where people come together with a willingness to learn and understand each other they tend to develop a commitment to suspending judgments and assumptions, their perspectives shift and positive change is almost inevitable.”

As Dr. Tint explained, the results of the dialogue process can be profound. In the case of the ADDP, groups with a deep-seeded mistrust of one another began to overcome that mistrust. Community members formed non-profit organizations to facilitate the dialogue process and encourage community healing. The dialogues provided a forum for women to speak up about their issues where one had not existed before. Groups who might have taken up arms against one another in Africa shared meals, broke bread together and participated in each other’s community celebrations. Apologies for past transgressions were offered and forgiveness returned.

“Facilitating these dialogues and building the capacity in the community to carry them on was the hardest, most challenging and best work of my life,” Dr. Tint said. “I came away from it struck by how resilient the human spirit is. People who had endured such horrific things came together to learn to understand one another to heal and move forward together in creating new lives.”

For its part, the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property at Portland State University worked with Dr. Tint to secure a copyright clearance for the manual and the materials it contains. “We are always happy to work with projects that have such a great potential for positive impacts,” Rachelle Richmond, Innovation Officer, said.

Diasporas in Dialogue is already having a positive impact on the lives of African refugees living here in the Metro region and beyond. Community groups in Chicago and Washington D.C. have expressed interest in working with the manual and Mr. Dogo has presented the work and the manual to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. The project also has international implications, as Dr. Tint will be going to Australia to collaborate with refugee organizations there, has consulted with UNESCO and hopes to work with European refugee organizations as well. 

Dr. Tint’s work with ADDP has not only identified an issue that needed to be addressed in our own community, but by traveling the US and to other countries with immigrant and refugee populations, Dr. Tint is also increasing the awareness of the historical conflicts migrant populations traveling into the Diaspora and the great potential that open dialogue can have in bringing fractured communities together.

For more information on Diasporas in Dialogue or the African Diaspora Dialogue Project, please contact Dr. Barbara Tint at tint@pdx.edu or visit www.diasporasindialogue.org.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted November 27, 2012