'52 Alumni Day After-Dinner Panel on
Sustained Dialogue to Improve Race Relations at Princeton
February 22, 2003
In the fall of 1998, '52 President Roger McLean, Joe Handelman, and several classmates held a series of conversations on campus with members of the newly-matriculated class of 2002. They proposed a special relationship between our two classes: as the "grandfather" class, we would celebrate our fiftieth reunion at the time of '02's graduation.
As part of this proposal, Roger and his team laid out a menu of possible ways in which members of our two classes could interact. One of those became the popular lecture series with '52ers sharing experiences in historic events, career development, development of different professional fields. In this list, Roger offered the opportunity for members of the two classes to work together in a process called Sustained Dialogue for improving racial and ethnic relationships. About a dozen members of '02 indicated an interest in this activity.
At that same time, Hal Saunders, then serving as a trustee, was engaged in a continuing discussion with then Dean of Student Life Janina Montero on the process of Sustained Dialogue and how it might be used to address the chronic problem that Princeton has long been regarded as an uncomfortable place for students of color. In the fall of 1998, Teddy Nemeroff '01 and three classmates approached Dean Montero to express their own concern on the subject. She put Teddy in touch with Hal Saunders, and David Tukey '02 became involved in the conversations. In the spring of 1999, Teddy and David in partnership with Dean Montero held a meeting to introduce potentially interested students to the process of Sustained Dialogue.
That process is now in its fourth year. It has spread to two other campuses. In the spring of '01, the "Sustained Dialogue group" won the Daily Princetonian's annual award for Most Significant Contribution to Student Life — the first time the prize had been awarded to a group rather than to an individual. Today there are more than a dozen groups on campus.
As a way of using the after-dinner program on Alumni Day to bring classmates into closer touch with undergraduate life, Hal organized a panel presentation on this experience with Sustained Dialogue: Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson led off the discussion and then was followed by Teddy Nemeroff, David Tukey, and Ambika Kapoor '04, moderator of the Sustained Dialogue group in which Vice President Dickerson participates. Absent because of illness was Jess Munitz '03, this year's undergraduate leader.
At the end of the evening, Hal reported that his International Institute for Sustained Dialogue would hire Jess for the year following her graduation in June to work as a catalyst to see how and whether the budding student network already involving the University of Virginia and Dickinson College and potentially students at Syracuse and University of Texas can be developed and extended. He invited classmates and particularly wives and associates to be part of this enterprise by making known students at other colleges-perhaps the alma maders of wives and associates or universities with which '52 members have become associated through children or neighborhood.
To provide further background for those who may be interested in this common interest group, Hal offers the following fuller summary of remarks made that Saturday evening in Princeton.
In our society, we don't often have the opportunity to stop and reflect on what is really important to ourselves and in our relationships with others. Having SD on campus causes us to dispense with hierarchy and titles and to reflect with others across racial, geographic, and generational backgrounds on critical issues such as these: "Who are we as persons? Who are we as members of the Princeton community? What is Princeton?" Sustained Dialogue gives us a chance to understand who we are in light of where we've come from-both as individuals and as an institution-and in light of the continuous learning that is redefining us day by day, month by month, year by year.
I can say as an administrator that my colleagues and I must be challenged to listen to others — especially to hear what students are concerned about. We can work together, we can heighten our awareness of who we have been and what we want to become. One example comes from the work of Teddy Nemeroff and his '01 classmates in Sustained Dialogue, when, at their Class Day ceremonies, they inducted as an honorary member of their class retired Justice (of the New York Supreme Court) Bruce Wright [editor's note: Bruce Wright had been admitted to Princeton in 1932 but when he came to registration and it was clear that he was of African American heritage, the Dean of Admissions suggested that he would be more comfortable at an historically black college and sent Judge Wright home]. In their action, these members of the Class of '01 and their Sustained Dialogue group forced this institution to face up to its own performance in the field of race relations. Together they posed the question: How can Princetonians act to overcome their own history-to move away from denial toward reconciliation?
What does it mean as Princetonians balance their Scott Fitzgerald heritage with their aspiration to be "in the service of all nations"? Communities are no longer divided and separate but interact intimately. If we are going to be a great power in a global community, we have the challenge of learning how to live together, to understand each other, to work respectfully together for change. That is what Sustained Dialogue is doing on this campus.
Over 32% of students on this campus are American students of color. Ten percent are international. Seven percent are first-generation college students. Forty-two percent of graduate students are international. How will we use that opportunity to learn about the global community in which we must play a powerful role?
Thank you so much for what you have contributed. I thank the students for making sure this is an idea that is spread across all parts of our community. We are all learning from the students as they lead us into this twenty-first century — a century without boundaries. This work is really terrific. It is creating the kind of atmospheric changes at Princeton that we will not fully understand for years. This is radical — sort of like the Class of 1952. Before dinner one of you said you were known as the "silent generation." I believe a better word would be the "stealth generation." Sustained Dialogue is a stealth operation.
Teddy Nemeroff, '01, the principal initiator of Sustained Dialogue at Princeton
In response to VP Dickerson, I want to recognize the help of the administration from the start. It has been a real partnership in which they led us by teaching us how to lead. They left the initiative and the follow-through to us while always being supportive.
What led us to Sustained Dialogue? I spent much of my freshman year in 1997-98 exploring ways of improving race relations on campus. My first experience came when I decided to run for class president. All of the candidates came together in a meeting with classmates to talk about their candidacies. In that meeting, one student — who later became my co-moderator in Sustained Dialogue — asked a question: What would you do to improve race relations as class president? None of us had really thought about this question. I started paying more attention to the fact that many students at Princeton do not feel comfortable here: there is no space to express that feeling; at the same time, the plurality of students are very happy here — they miss the fact that there is a significant group that does not always feel welcome at Princeton.
I lost the election, but four of us — two African-Americans, myself, and an Armenian-American — met night after night during the spring of that freshman year. It really affected my grades. Our problem was that we all came from very different backgrounds and places and very different perspectives on the problems at Princeton and how we should address them. We never could agree on an approach. We got frustrated with each other and just fell apart.
At the same time I was involved with the undergraduate student government. There were murmurs about something called Sustained Dialogue and an alumnus named Hal Saunders who was on the Board of Trustees and who had been talking with the administration about it. What attracted me about the process was that it was an approach. It had five stages — a beginning point and an end point which was action. I realized later that the middle stages were critical because they provide the space where participants align perspectives so they could act together. Sustained Dialogue offered a way to act.
We began in a real partnership with the administration. In the end, the administration actually pushed us forward to lead. They provided us with space to organize a retreat in the spring of 1999. That was the beginning of something really exciting.
We have now been going for four years and we have expanded to three colleges. There are several hundred students involved right now at Princeton, the University of Virginia, and Dickinson College.
I was thinking on the train about my answer to Hal Saunders' thought: "I don't know exactly how this is happening." In my view the reason why it's happening, the reason why people value it, the reason why it's catching on is that the experience I had of wanting to do something, seeking out people to do something with, but not having a way to do what I wanted to do is a common experience. Because it's a common experience, many of us jump at the opportunity to sit down with people in a situation that is truly authentic to share actual experiences with race relations to hear what others have to say — to hear about experiences in which I might have been the bad guy in others' stories, how our behavior impacted each other. The fact there are others out there like Ambika, Jess, and many others here at Princeton, like Priya Parker and her colleagues at U.Va., like Jason Gong and others at Dickinson who are taking this process and making it theirs suggests that it has strong appeal to many different kinds of people.
David Tukey, '02, co-author with Teddy of the student handbook
Hal has asked me to talk about what it takes to start a student network across campuses for something like Sustained Dialogue — about how we interacted with others to get that network going.
Let me say one thing at the outset. It is very special to have Teddy and Ambika on campus at the same time; they never interacted before. What we can say is that we are beating the four-year student revolving door. Ambika has made this process her own and has shown her ability to carry on without ever knowing the founder until now. This is something we should really celebrate.
In my view, two words are critical in the spreading and perpetuating of this network: leadership and ownership.
Jim Baker '52, at our Class Day ceremony last June, described a leader as one who sees that something needs to be done and does it. I like that definition. JFK had another definition when he said that a leader is someone not afraid to throw a rock into a still pool, knowing that it will create ripples, the ripples will create waves, and the waves will change landscapes in a society.
In the spring of 1999, Teddy took leadership. His perseverance bordered on self-immolation. But that would not have happened if Sustained Dialogue was not what Sustained Dialogue is. When implemented correctly it becomes a self-proliferating, self-perpetuating entity that you really cannot get in the way of.
There is nothing that can generate a sense of purpose better than pure human pain. When you come into contact with the things that you come into contact with in these groups, you say to yourself, "I just have to do something about this. I'm not going to let this die. I'm going to keep this going." That is the ownership that many of us feel. You see someone else taking a step and you do something to support it.
I took ownership in my freshman year in agreeing to moderate one of the first two groups. By senior year I was moderating three groups myself because I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could from this experience.
I've seen people change. Last year I saw a white girl from Greenwich and a girl who had had to flee South Africa at the age of six because of apartheid. One left the room crying. It was a very emotional exchange that changed the character of our discussion. More important, this past fall they moderated a group together. By sheer perseverance, they brought into that group Cornel West, the editorial board of the Princeton Tory (the conservative magazine). And President Tilgham has written Hal Saunders saying that she has been personally affected by Sustained Dialogue.
This kind of experience has been attractive to other schools. I personally spent hours on the phone with Priya Parker as she started moderating her group at the University of Virginia.
Let me close by saying that race relations are a profound problem in the US today. Princeton professor Colin Palmer says: "There is no problem that has scarred America's soul so deeply as the strained relationships among its races." What I have learned in my groups is that the problem of racism today is not what it was in the 1960s when marching and changing laws could make an important difference. It is now much more subtle. What will change things is not people marching but people coming to grips with their own thoughts about racism and then making their own difference.
I study neuroscience because I'm very interested, in part, in how the brain facilitates people being who they are and how they interact with others. I saw a recent study that reported how people often have facial expressions that last only one-twentieth of a second. We may not want our faces to show what we really feel, but they do, even if only very quickly, and we are not even conscious of that. Others are not conscious of it either, but their subconscious picks it up. That has profound implications for relationships. The only way to effect those interactions is to come to grips with how we feel about these things.
In closing, I say that Sustained Dialogue is for everybody. Class of '52, you can take it and own it yourselves.
Ambika Kapoor, '04
I want to begin by telling you how I became involved in Sustained Dialogue. Only here at Princeton did I really begin to struggle with my identity (South Asian-Indian-American). That was the result of people I met freshman year. At first, I hated myself for not loving this place as so many people do. I thought, "I'm not getting it. I'm not experiencing Princeton the way others are."
I began talking to others who were having the same experience I was. I began to realize that since I set foot on the Princeton campus, I was more aware of my racial identity than I ever had been before.
During frosh week, I planned to go to the diversity orientation session and asked a good friend from high school — a white male — to go with me. He responded: "Why do I have to go to that? It doesn't apply to me." His saying that thrust on me the entire baggage that I didn't know how to handle. So I spent my entire freshman year struggling with this problem. I befriended a lot of Indian people, which I had never done before. Then I began to think about more constructive ways of grappling with this problem. I talked with an Indian friend who said Sustained Dialogue was one of the most enriching experiences he had had on the campus. So sophomore year I joined a group, had a wonderful moderator, and was amazed at the discussion that took place in two-hour sessions over dinner. It was comforting to know that I wasn't the only one not experiencing Princeton in the conventional way that many students talk about.
Then I was asked to moderate a group — a new but immensely enriching experience. The first job of a moderator is to create an atmosphere that is conducive to discussing the experiences we have been talking about here tonight. Producing that environment can be quite challenging. In the classroom, people tend to intellectualize culture and race and speak of them as outside their personal "bubble." That is a lot easier than allowing someone to invade your personal bubble and comment on the experiences you have had that have shaped you as an individual. You learn that you cannot hold peoples' experiences against them. These perspectives can clash or become constructive avenues to a better future.
As co-moderator I found it important to create an environment in which people feel free to discuss those issues. How do we do that? I feel comfortable with people who make themselves vulnerable to me first. We have tried to make ourselves vulnerable as co-moderators at the beginning of many meetings. Also we have tired to find innovative ways to talk about themes that have been talked about a lot.
My vision for Sustained Dialogue comes from my experience when I worked on Capitol Hill in Washington last summer. When people learned that I went to Princeton, they immediately asked what I could possibly know about common people. I want people to graduate from Princeton able to demonstrate without a doubt Princeton students' ability to relate to people of all colors.