“Throw us into the fire”: S-CAR master’s students facilitate dialogue on #MeToo

ID: a large room with approximately 50 people seated at multiple roundtables. They are listening to three speakers seated at a long table at the front of the room.

Master’s students at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution organized a public dialogue on #MeToo on November 19, 2018, on the Arlington Campus of George Mason University.

By Oakley Hill and Audrey Williams

When Agnieszka Paczynska and Leslie Dwyer, both professors at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, instructed their Fall 2018 CONF 600 students to decide on a topic for their Dialogue and Difference event to be held in November, it didn’t take long for them to choose their subject: the #MeToo movement.

The students began organizing the event in the wake of the controversial Congressional hearings concerning the multiple accusations that then Supreme Court nominee (now Associate Justice) Brett Kavanaugh had committed sexual assault during his high school and college years.

“Sexual assault is an issue that impacts far too many women and men, not only in places we traditionally have considered to be conflict zones, but here on our campuses as well,” said Dwyer, who along with Paczynska helped guide the students through the process of organizing the event.

Each year, S-CAR master’s students beginning their studies with Foundations of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (CONF 600) are tasked with organizing an event as part of the Dialogue & Difference Project in order to give them real-world practice at organizing and facilitating difficult conversations.

ID: Three people seated at a table in front of an audience at roundtables.

Sean Robinson (left), Khadija Jones (center), and Mary Nerino (right) speak at the November 19 event on #MeToo.

The public dialogue organized by the Fall 2018 entering master’s class was titled “#MeToo: Gone Too Far? Or Not Far Enough?” and was held on George Mason University's Arlington Campus on November 19, 2018. It featured a panel discussion with three speakers—Khadija Jones, a women’s rights advocate and sexual assault survivor; Mary Nerino, an Attorney at Law who handles sexual assault cases; and Sean Robinson, an associate professor at Morgan State University—followed by roundtable conversations with the attendees, facilitated by students from the CONF 600 class.

“[Sexual assault is] an issue that is vital for conflict analysis and resolution to take seriously, and I'm proud of our entering MS students for taking the lead in promoting this important dialogue," Dwyer said.

Patricia Maulden, an associate professor at S-CAR and director of the Dialogue & Difference Project, gave a guest lecture on facilitation to the master’s students to prepare them for their event. According to Maulden, “the initial and continuing goal of the Dialogue & Difference Project was and is to create a place for structured communication that allows for learning about and an understanding of difficult topics and diverse student opinions.”

Jones, who like the other speakers had a chance to join the packed roundtables for the facilitated conversation, appreciated the opportunity to be a part of the November discussion.

“It was really awesome to see people of different backgrounds and age groups just share their experiences and viewpoints,” she said.

She was also grateful to be able to share her own personal experiences as a survivor of sexual assault.

“I felt seen, and I think that's super important,” she said, noting that the #MeToo founder, Tarana Burke, started the movement because “she wanted people to feel seen, and to feel validated, and to be able to tell their story.” 

During her remarks on the panel, Jones spoke about her experiences as a Black woman. She told S-CAR News that it is important to understand that anyone can be affected by sexual assault. That also means “tell[ing] our own stories from our own perspectives.” She believes that “when we share our identity, it gives people background on where we come from.”

She also noted that hearing from the different, and sometime opposing, perspectives of the other speakers allowed her to recognize her own biases. For example, she said that while she doesn’t often feel comfortable speaking about survivors who are men because she does not identify as a man, the discussion during the event underlined to her how they also need to be given the space to share their own experiences with sexual assault.

Overall, Jones was appreciative of the age, gender, and occupational diversity amongst participants as well as the safe and constructive space provided during the event.

Jordan Mrvos, a master’s student at S-CAR who helped facilitate the event, had hoped to see more “extreme opinions” represented during the discussion. Speaking of those who hold such views, Mrvos said that “they are, after all, why most of us are here.” Noting that past D&D events have “gotten quite tense,” he said that “we missed that on our turn, and I sorely missed it.”

Mrvos said that in the future, master’s students organizing the event could learn even more about how to navigate contentious conversations if more conflict is present. When it comes to how to improve student learning, Mrvos said, “Simply put: throw us into the fire.”

Confronting conflict through dialogue

With the recent hiring of Kavanaugh as a distinguished visiting professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, one wonders how the November 2018 event would turn out if it was held now. His hiring sparked backlash from Mason students, including a petition to rescind his appointment, which reached 15,000 signatures.

“The intensity of students’ response to Kavanaugh’s appointment to the university’s law school underscores how timely the Dialogue and Difference topic of #MeToo was,” said Paczynska. “It also underscores how important it is for all of us to continue engaging in dialogues about sexual violence, its impact on those affected by it, and how we as a society are going to work to address it.”

In the midst of Kavanaugh’s controversial hearings and hiring at George Mason, creating a dialogue event about the #MeToo movement demonstrated the ability of students to recognize conflict, and a willingness to confront it head on.

The reflections of Mrvos and Jones on the November 2018 event pose questions related to measuring the impact of dialogues on contentious issues, which so often come with intense personal investment among participants. Involving participants with a diversity of perspectives seems to be necessary for D&D to fulfill its mission to “promote cultural, political, and social understanding through the process of community dialogue participation.” Dialogue between diverse and conflicting worldviews surely promotes cultural, political, and social understanding, especially within a country increasingly characterized by misunderstanding.

However, maybe dialogue can still be constructive even amongst those who mostly agree with each other. One function of the #MeToo movement, as Jones noted, is the healing one experiences through solidarity with other survivors and affected individuals. After all, voicing one’s trauma can be valuable in its own right.

Mrvos noted that no matter how much he and his fellow students prepared, the event turned up surprises in the viewpoints shared. Indeed, any event, but especially a D&D event, is likely to go in directions its organizers don't expect. 

This is a lesson that Paczynska, Dwyer, and Maulden hoped to teach the master’s students. You can’t expect the unexpected, but with deft facilitation, you can guide your fellow participants through a dialogue that creates a space for the sharing of diverse experiences and viewpoints. The result, according to Maulden, is “the opportunity for personal reflection and change.”

S-CAR’s incoming Fall 2019 cohort of master’s students will host their next Dialogue & Difference event on November 14, 2019, on Mason’s Arlington Campus. Keep an eye on S-CAR’s Events page (https://scar.gmu.edu/events) for more information.