Kathy Lilla Cox, College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University

How do we talk with each other when we disagree? Can we get out of our echo chambers and work together to foster needed and necessary change?  What does it look like to help young adults in college talk with each other without divisive rhetoric?

As I have pondered these questions recently I have reflected upon an early teaching experience with college students. Spring 2007 in the Bronx and the classroom had erupted. Raised voices, cross-talking, crackling energy, emotions high.  The students politely and quietly had been discussing Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s piece “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the Twenty-first Century,” and her definitions of solidarity and charity. Then my question – “What would it mean to take down the iron-rod fence between the University and the neighborhood? What does solidarity look like here, in the Bronx, with our neighbors?” Fear, challenge, and pain emerged in student responses:  “We can’t take down the fence.” “Why not?” “The neighborhood is unsafe.” “That’s my neighborhood; I live there.” This experience is still sharp a decade later. Through periodic contemplation of that day, I have realized more deeply that amidst the highly charged responses, students took risks, were courageous, and willing to challenge each other by entering into a space of discomfort and conflict.

There are no-iron rod fences surrounding the campuses from neighbors in central MN where I have taught for almost a decade. Rather, the fences are frequently of a different sort. One is particularly challenging for a theological ethicist, the desire by students to be nice. As a result, students can often see disagreement and conflict as rude.  Therefore, reading the book chapter “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces” by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens helps me better understand what happened in 2007 and provides a still needed framework for engaging the desire by my current students to be nice.

Arao and Clemens are student affairs educators who realized in their work that students often equated “safety with comfort” and had trouble when conversations moved “from polite to provocative.” To all who teach controversial or tough subjects they pose the question, are we inadvertently “hindering our own efforts by relying on the traditional language of safe space?” In turn, Arao and Clemens analyze five common ground rules for discussion: 1) agree to disagree, 2) don’t take things personally, 3) challenge by choice, 4) respect, and 5) no attacks. In looking at these five common ground rules for dialogue, they deconstruct the language of “safe space” providing rationale, frameworks, and tools to encourage a “brave space” for learning about social justice and other types of ethical concerns.

While my plan had been to implement several pedagogical changes based upon their work this academic year and to build on the changes next year, events in recent months necessitated a more rapid implementation of pedagogical adjustments. National, local, and campus events have created an atmospheric mix not limited to but including protest, trepidation, fear, activism, dismay, uncertainty, anger, compassion, courage, withdrawal, and disengagement. In this environment, Arao and Clemens help me more intentionally shape and critically analyze some assumptions about discussion guidelines with students. I repeatedly state explicitly that in theological ethics conflict cannot be ruled out; rather we learn from it. Students and I have discussed together why “agreeing to disagree” halts a conversation and often falls short of understanding another person’s argument or ethical stance. We have talked about how understanding why we disagree is hard work because it requires staying in a conversation and listening deeply to another person from a stance of curiosity rather than debate. I have named that with conversations about difficult topics we cannot expect immediate resolution or consensus.

My students have told me that to enter a brave space they desire and need to know something about each other. Therefore, we invest time each week getting to know each other by talking about movies, our responses to the weather, telling stories about our lives, or naming our favorite color. I remind them we do this because they want to know each other as they practice each week creating a “brave space” for conversation, dialogue, and discussion. We revisit our collaboratively decided conversation guidelines, revising as needed before entering into the week’s ethical topic. Several months into the semester, these changes have helped my students and me as we learn to resist complacency by being present to each other in our discomfort as we name injustices, confront each other’s assumptions, disagree with each other as we study, have hard conversations about various ethical issues, and make decisions about our own ethical actions. In so doing, my students give me hope.

Kathy Lilla Cox is an Associate Professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in central MN where she teaches theological ethics.  She is the author of Water Shaping Stone: Faith, Relationships, and Conscience Formation.