Institute shifts from Sustained Dialogue to Better Angels

The Institute for Freedom and Community is now working with Better Angels, a bipartisan organization that aims to decrease political polarization. The Institute formerly worked with Sustained Dialogue, a College organization created four years ago to host discussions around identity. The 2017 transition prompted Sustained Dialogue to shift from a faculty-run organization to a student-run club.

Sustained Dialogue focuses on the “‘Big Eight’ social identifiers: socioeconomic status, gender and sex, age, race and color, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity and ability,” according to the St. Olaf website. Edmund Santurri, Morrison Family Director of The Institute of Freedom and Community, believes Better Angels is a better fit for the goals of the Institute than Sustained Dialogue.

“It’s not a criticism of Sustained Dialogue, it just doesn’t fit what we’re trying to do,” Santurri said. “[The Institute] is interested in generating a conversation of political views where a wide range of perspectives have a seat at the table.”

Better Angels seeks to promote multi-perspective political discourse and strives to establish common ground between liberals and conservatives, according to the Better Angels website. 

“Better Angels is concerned especially with bringing together in conversation persons with diverse viewpoints,” Santurri wrote in an email. “That’s what the Institute is about centrally, generating intellectually diverse conversations about significant social and political issues.” 

Better Angels began programming at St. Olaf this year. One of their first on-campus events was an Oct. 6 workshop in which eight conservatives and eight liberals gathered for a series of discussions and activities.

Sarah Conlin-Brandenburg ’19, who has been involved with both Sustained Dialogue and Better Angels, didn’t think the Oct. 6 workshop led to productive discussion between Democrat and Republican students. 

“[It] was just one side discussing their view point and the other side listening,” Conlin-Brandenburg said. “I think the goal was to better understand the other side but it didn’t feel like anyone learned anything.” 

During a fishbowl discussion, the students separated into groups based on their political parties and discussed stereotypes commonly associated with their respective parties. The discussion didn’t allow for engagement about important issues between the sides in the same way as Sustained Dialogue, Conlin-Brandenburg said. 

“In Sustained Dialogue, there were guidelines that the group decided on for what you can say and how the conversation will go,” Conlin-Brandenburg said. “It felt like it was more encouraging of underrepresented voices to be heard.”

Santurri believes this kind of political discourse is beneficial for not just the students in the workshop but the campus as a whole.

“It may be easier to just avoid those conversations altogether, but we think it’s important to encourage students, as an integral part of their liberal arts education, to seek out and engage with people who don’t share the same beliefs or values,” Institute Assistant Director Greg Siems said.

While the Institute shifted to Better Angels because it better aligns with their mission,  the Institue expects to save substantial amounts of money because Better Angels is a volunteer organization. 

“The expenses the Institute incurred for supporting Sustained Dialogue per year were almost 10 times the expenses incurred in working with Better Angels,” Santurri wrote in an email.

Better Angels is not meant to replace Sustained Dialogue as a campus organization, said Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King. While the Institute no longer funds Sustained Dialogue, the organization remains on campus as a student-led group.

Sustained Dialogue President Disa Sullivan ’20 sees the transition as an opportunity “to continue conversation of experiences of identity, and to maintain the important discussions that Sustained Dialogue supports.” 

 “It’s to build a place to discuss and understand different experiences” Sullivan said. 

Sustained Dialogue will return to campus as a club in Spring 2019.

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