Promoting dialogue on Out of Eden Learn: Learning from two new offline initiatives

Jordan Magid is a recent graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Before Harvard, Jordan served as founding Executive Director for U-Doodle, a Miami-based arts and education nonprofit. He also co-launched the Miami chapter for Tea With Strangers, a community building organization based in San Francisco. Jordan is interested in understanding how to promote authentic dialogue in online settings. 


For several years I stood out among colleagues as a rebel, unwilling to get sucked into text-messaging and social media habits. I argued (and continue to debate) with many ‘digital media advocates’, fearful that our growing addiction to social media is detracting from the intimacy and authenticity of our human relationships. I see groups of friends out to dinner sitting in silence, each person staring at their palm-sized screens. The human inside of me wants to yank those phones from their hands and shout, ‘Hey! These are your friends. You should talk to them!’

But, let’s be practical. Social media is not going anywhere. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The number of digital ‘natives’ is increasing, and future leaders of our world will soon have a more refined practical knowledge of the digital world than ever before. One step forward in this direction includes initiatives like Out of Eden Learn (OOEL). Here, educators leverage digital media to connect hundreds of students around the globe to one another, guiding them along Paul Salopek’s epic worldwide trek. Initiatives like this offer hope for the future of digital media by promoting global citizenship through intercultural dialogue and exchange activities.

The OOEL team is exploring what healthy dialogue can look like on digital media. And, more specifically, the team is looking to improve the OOEL experience by asking, how can we promote healthy dialogue in our diverse online community? The team is already experimenting with a toolkit aimed at facilitating more thoughtful, in depth, forum discussions. We can look to the positive and productive discussion around Paul’s dispatches as an exemplar for healthy dialogue in this digital space. Yet, many more solutions and models for dialogue are waiting to be discovered. Below, I draw from personal experience to highlight two organizations that emphasize the value of healthy dialogue in all aspects of their educational programming: Tea With Strangers and U-Doodle. By analyzing what makes these programs unique at promoting good dialogue, we can discover innovative ways to promote healthy dialogue within the OOEL online community.

Tea With Strangers:

Tea With Strangers (TWS) is a community organization based in San Francisco (U.S.A) that promotes meaningful human connection between strangers to make our cities feel smaller. Last year, I opened a branch of TWS in Miami, and was awestruck at the power of dialogue as a tool for community building. TWS is known nationally for its intimate ‘Tea Time’ gatherings, where 4-6 strangers sign up anonymously online to meet one another for a couple of hours over tea. Many things make Tea Time the kind of gathering that almost regularly left me tearing up with a restored sense of hope for humanity. Understandably, though, not every dialogue could – or even should – necessarily inspire tears. Since, in this blog post, I’m drawing insight from Tea With Strangers regarding how it promotes healthy dialogue, here are several details that make their programs so darn meaningful:

  • The hosts set the tone. Local Tea Time hosts maintain a certain ‘etiquette’ to set norms for how conversation will go. Hosts often employ body language to communicate norms for their conversation, instead of directives and rules (e.g. host turns off his or her phone in a way that’s visible, to signal that phones aren’t appropriate).
  • Expectations are loose. The organization’s website and the pre-Tea Time confirmation emails state the commitment clearly. People are made aware that this doesn’t need to be about making friends. Attendees can join just for two hours of unbound conversation.
  • Attendance is self-selecting. Not everybody feels comfortable meeting complete strangers over tea, and the organization knows that. The experience is special because everybody who joins shares the experience of taking a risk by choosing to attend.
  • It’s about the stories behind the opinions. People often say what they believe and shout it loud (e.g. a typical Facebook news feed). But Tea Time hosts probe deeper, asking attendees to share stories about the moments of choice when they discovered those beliefs.

U-Doodle:

U-Doodle, on the other hand, is an organization based out of Miami (U.S.A) that uses art to facilitate dialogue across disparate cultures. In 2011, I founded U-Doodle, and began serving as its Director, after discovering benefits of art as a tool for communication. At our workshops, we invite people from varying roles within a pre-selected community (i.e. students, teachers, community activists, and business-leaders) and unite them to produce collaborative art murals. Our participants create pieces of art that visually represent both their shared experience and their dialogue. In many cases, dialogue occurs in multiple forms. As an artistic collaboration, paintings mesh together, and actively take shape in response to one another. As a conversation, participants share stories and casually get to know one another. After observing workshops for four years, a few qualities stand out as essential for dialogue at U-Doodle:

  • The activity is ‘low-barrier to entry’. People of many different backgrounds come together because the art that U-Doodle specializes in, doodling (free-form art), is easy. People don’t need to be professional artists. The activity doesn’t require so much focused attention. Hence, participants have mental space to converse.
  • It’s designed for multiple stakeholders. The program ensures that people with competing goals and interests around a shared issue come together for discussion. This leaves room for plenty of rich dialogue and debate.
  • Multiple modes of communication add value. Dialogue exists beyond verbal conversation. With fine-art and movement, people can have dialogue in a language that doesn’t have, or need, words. Participants have the opportunity to reply to one another’s art by working in a collaborative setting.
  • The casual social nature works. U-Doodle uses music and interactive activities to liven the experience. For many, this makes programs feel like a relaxing break from work or school. This opens the door for raw, uninhibited, discussion that’s not found in a formal workplace.

From U-Doodle and Tea With Strangers we learn that positive dialogue can exist in multiple forms. On many occasions, educational organizations are very particular about the ‘set-up’ of a space, especially if it’s to be one that promotes healthy dialogue. If not for certain environmental elements that make these organizations so special, participants may not even reach the point of dialogue. Perhaps they’d be stuck talking at one another in the style of monologue rather than together with one another. Promoting dialogue can be similar to how we design effective classroom spaces. Small changes in desk arrangements, wall art or a teacher’s sensibilities can have major impact on student engagement. At TWS, dialogue is healthy thanks to the culture of the organization and the characteristics of the host. At U-Doodle, dialogue is healthy thanks to the diversity of participants and the communicative power of art.

Out of Eden Learn:

For Out of Eden Learn, where promoting healthy dialogue is a priority, these two organizations offer a dose of inspiration, but also offer practical tips that can be used for any educator interested in promoting dialogue across cultures. For example, dialogue can be considered in terms other than merely text. Promoting dialogue on OOEL could mean promoting a certain type of video sharing or artistic collaboration. One idea could include having students video-record parts of their walks, then work in collaboration with another student to co-edit and co-create a larger production inspired by each other’s footage. Dialogue on OOEL could also be improved with closer attention to the website’s design features. For instance, certain text boxes or upload pages may be difficult to use and might inhibit someone from engaging in dialogue. Research into the psychological effects of design features on a user’s willingness to participate in positive dialogue is needed.

In the digital world, dialogue can appear terse and depthless (i.e. if someone responds to a photo saying only “cool”). Yet, with fresh eyes, we can (1) broaden our understanding of dialogue to include communication beyond conventional talking, and (2) pay close attention to the environment in which dialogue occurs and the way in which we design for it. Hence, in digital settings we may discover many new forms of dialogue that are, perhaps, deeper and more engaging than merely text or spoken word (e.g. online photo sharing). We may also discover nuances in graphic design, or interaction design, that psychologically influence the way in which digital users participate in deeper dialogue online. By developing these new perspectives with care and intentionality, we can pave the way toward meaningful connections that may never be possible offline.

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