Constructive and purposeful dialogue is important to Alexandra Friedlander.
“I want people to have a safe space to have [difficult] conversations because a lot of times when they do, whether it’s with family, friends, classmates or people they work with, it doesn’t really end in any resolution,” she says. “Instead, it ends in ‘iffy’ feelings.”
The Winchester Thurston junior hosted the second of four quarterly “Dialogue Projects” on Sunday, Feb. 24, at Repair the World. The focus of the event was “Community Responses to Hate Crimes” and explored “how different communities respond to hate crimes experienced by their own communities and how they respond when other communities face similar tragedies.”
Friedlander developed the project after meeting Rachel Lipro, teen and family manager at Repair the World and Marissa Tait, youth advisor at Rodef Shalom Congregation and director of youth programming at Congregation Beth Shalom, at a Seeds of Peace camp in 2018.
Seeds of Peace is a not-for-profit leadership development organization which brings together youth and educators at its camp in Maine.
Because Friedlander was the only Pittsburgh teen that attended the camp, there was no formal structure to create the type of safe place for conversations the “Dialogue Projects” encourage, so the 17-year-old used her new experience and education to develop her own in the city.
“I wanted to use the skills I learned when I attended the Seeds of Peace camp with Rachel and Marissa,” Friedlander explained, “and put them into play using the connections I have at Repair the World and with Marissa. I thought we could do something really great.”
According to Tait, “Alexandra’s peers, who attended the camp, have built-in programs at their high schools, so these conversations are taking place, chosen by principals and other advisors. I think it shows a lot about Alexandra’s character because she doesn’t have the Seeds of Peace support. This is a creation of her own using the tools she was given.”
Libros said that the goal of the Dialogue Project is “not to have everyone leave with a shared opinion, rather it’s more about building skills and the way we listen to hear other stories and share ideas and experiences.”
The workshop began by participants breaking into groups of two and sharing facts about themselves not widely known. Friedlander explained the exercise as designed to get the attendees primed for the difficult conversations that would be taking place during the second half of the program. Once re-formed, the group presented what they had learned and discussed how surprising they found some of the information. Of particular interest to the group was Michelle Kennedy’s experience as a life coach.
After the introduction, Friedlander presented guidelines for the conversations that would be taking place. These included: Be open and respectful to disagreement; always speak from an “I” perspective and personal experience; do what you need to do to remain present in the conversation; step up and step back (to ensure all voices in the room are heard); and state what you believe but don’t try to persuade others. Tait cautioned that “yes/and” statements should be used to validate what a person has said and to add onto their statement even if you disagree. Emily Zambito, an attendee, added that listeners should “assume benevolence and the best attention of those speaking.”
The bulk of the project was spent on two activities designed by Friedlander that were meant to encourage discussion about identity, bias and individual response to hate crimes.
In the first, the group read editorials that responded to hate crimes and discussed their reactions to the information presented, including the perceived tone and bias of each story. Articles chosen included “The Tree of Life Shooting Devastated All of Pittsburgh,” “I Can’t Help but Ask Why Black Lives Aren’t Mourned This Way” and “The United States of Anti-Muslim Hate.”
The final activity of the day was a hands-on project in which Friedlander read a statement and participants discussed whether they agreed or disagreed with what she had read. These included “All lives are mourned equally in identity-based violence,” “There’s a universal governmental response to identity-based violence,” “There is a universal public response to identity based acts of violence,” and “I have taken action against violence that did not directly affect my identity group.”
“The Dialogue Project” continues Sunday, April 28, at Repair the World with a panel discussion focused on relations between police and the community and will include community members and Pittsburgh police officers. PJC
Dave Rullo is a local freelance writer.