Beyond Convenience: The Importance of Dialogue in Community

By Emily Johnson

I’m totally guilty of it. I have an iPhone where I get news updates straight on my phone. I subscribe to a daily e-newsletter that presents 5-7 news topics in a summarized, quirky and fun-to-read format, all before 7 AM. My Twitter is used exclusively for getting instant news updates. In short, I am constantly surrounded by these short, condensed news stories that give me just enough information to stay updated and #informed.

But in an age where we have a myriad of information instantly at our fingertips, I have to question if we really are connected to the world around us and attentive to the many pressing issues that integrate our everyday life. There is so much happening in the world every day, so it makes sense to rely on “experts” to filter through all of the content to allow us to get a sizable chunk of information that we can process, right? But by reading whatever abbreviated news source or relying on a media outlet to provide unbiased, factual reports of what is really going in the world and our communities, are we actually able to grasp concepts of injustice for what they really are?

No, the way that modern information is dispersed today frames these events and issues in an one-dimensional way that limits the ability to analyze the intersectionality between them and, therefore, debilitates the creation of effective solutions in response to them. By relying on others, which are often institutions and members of systems that perpetuate privilege and power or at least a certain ways of thinking, to set the agenda of what we concern ourselves with or how we conceptualize these things, we are surrendering our own free thinking and ability to make essential connections.

So how do we combat this? How do we, as members of a diverse, faith and socially aware community, stay informed about the events and issues around us without falling prey to the predetermined agendas of simplified news and injustice?

One viable solution I find hopeful lately is through meaningful and intentional dialogue of community through the Hot Topics program here at Scarritt Bennett Center. The monthly program focuses on a particular issue and gathers panelists who have direct experience with the topic to present their particular narrative of involvement in the issue and open it up to community questions. How does this facilitate connection, you might wonder, or how does it target the one-dimensionality or compartmentalization of information if there is only one topic addressed each time?

Simple — through the facilitated dialogue and the innumerable sum of experiences gathered from each of the people in the room, these essential connections are made because they are presented in a space that welcomes and embraces them. Let me provide an example; just a couple weeks ago in the October Hot Topics discussing Amendment 1, the concept of reproductive justice was naturally brought up. We were talking about the ability for a woman to make informed decisions about her own body, but before we could make conclusions on that basic principle, other underlying issues affecting access like race, poverty, religion, and world-views naturally came up as part of the picture. And that makes complete sense!

The issues of Amendment 1, the humanitarian crisisin children fleeing violence from Central and South America, and gentrification — all Hot Topics presented in my three months here– are not supposed to be examined in a single-dimension because these are not single-dimension issues. They are meant to be critically analyzed in a context that embraces the human experience, and the human experience is anything but a single dimension. It is messy; it is complex; it is the intersection of all of these issues. And it is beautiful, and it is real.

The way our news is compartmentalized and delivered to us in bite-sized pieces, however, does not lend itself to fostering the intersectionality and complicated nature of the human experience. It is all around us and convenient, but we must remember that it is merely a tool that we should be using to understand, not the understanding in and of itself. As individuals that seek to rectify injustice in the world and create structures and norms that reflect values of love, equality and diversity of the human experience, we must look beyond the information simply presented to us and instead look forward to the dialogue fostered in community, whether that takes place in a structured setting like Hot Topics or occurs in the living room with your roommates or family. It is here in this space of community, through a multi-dimensional perspective, that we can discover connections, envision solutions, and continue the exhausting work of pursuing justice.


Emily Johnson is a 2014-2015 Belle H. Bennett House Fellow at Scarritt Bennett Center. A recent graduate from Hastings College in Nebraska, Emily is passionate about the intersection of politics and legislative policy, women’s empowerment, eradication of racism, food justice, intentional community, and grassroots organization. She currently assists Suha Ahmad-Alsyoufi in the Education, Programs, and Connections office at Scarritt Bennett Center where she focuses on facilitating dialogue around issues of race and diversity. Emily plans to attend graduate school for food policy and law in the future.