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Difficult Dialogues: In a national context

Sept. 13, 2007
By Jennifer Krisch

(Second in a two-day series)

As fall quarter was about to start, Ohio University's participants in the Difficult Dialogues Project heard just how special they are ? and from the program's national director, no less.

Ohio University's version of Difficult Dialogues, funded by a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in cooperation with the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, is engaging more than 200 Athens campus freshmen in conversations about religion in hopes they come away with a deeper understanding of one another's faiths (or lack thereof).

The Friday and Saturday before classes began, the Difficult Dialogues students gathered as a group for the first time to meet one another and their professors in person and engage in discussion with Robert O'Neil, national director of Difficult Dialogues and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center.

A respected scholar in American constitutional law and former president of the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin, O'Neil noted that Ohio University is one of only 27 schools, out of more than 700 that applied, to receive funding for the Difficult Dialogues Project.

"So that gives you a sense of how extraordinary this program is," O'Neil said, emphasizing the unique opportunity provided to OU students. 

O'Neil asked group members to consider whether they were in the minority or the mainstream in comparison to their peers with respect to their beliefs, politics or socioeconomic status. "In some or several dimensions, each of us is probably in the minority," he said. 

He went on to tell a story about a dinner party he attended many years back, in which one guest continued to make anti-Semitic jokes throughout dinner. O'Neil knew there were two Jewish guests at the party, yet he said nothing to defend them or to make the jokester stop.  "When someone makes insensitive comments, we do not speak up, do we?" he said. "It is difficult to do. Difficult Dialogues is about making us more confident in raising those tough questions." 

By the end of the day, O'Neil gave the students four assignments for the year:

  • Make a point to get to know, more than casually, someone with a different religious belief, of a different race or of a different sexual orientation.
  • Get to know your senior faculty, even beyond the faculty who are participants in this program. It is a rare opportunity most students don't recognize because they are too intimidated. You never know what you could learn.
  • Volunteer. Even though you are busy, there is always time to devote to a good cause.
  • Have fun. A college experience without fun is dull.

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Published: Jul 20, 2006 3:50:00 PM
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