My Black Dialogue Power

January 14, 2022

By Adelle Sium

This article was writen by Adelle Sium an alumnus from Semester in Democracy: The Next Frontier.

Most of us can probably agree that we are not the same people we were since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly two years ago. Some have changed career paths or learned how to bake sourdough bread. I learned how to step into my Black dialogue power.

Don't worry, "Black Dialogue Power" is not a new hashtag that you have missed from your timeline. It’s a term I coined to describe how I stepped into my power during my time in Semester in Democracy: The Next Frontier at SFU's Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue during the peak of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

The intensity of this movement transcended our education on democracy in unprecedented ways and propelled dialogue on race, colonization and white supremacy to new heights. It is a rare occurrence to have a diverse group of people from different races, socioeconomic backgrounds and perspectives engage in conversations like these for 40 hours a week. But this experience taught me how important it is to have the courage to engage in the hard conversations. I believe that this intentional engagement has the potential to transform our society.

But first, before I get too far, let me dive into the foundation of where my dialogue story begins.

As a kid, my father regularly brought me along with him to local Italian coffee shops along Commercial Drive, an eclectic neighbourhood known for its bustling sidewalks, vibrant characters and diverse cultures. For my father, it was where he and his peers would have spirited conversations. They would go from laughing fits to hysterical debates on Eritrean politics and the complex socio-political climate of our new country. As a child I was always confused as to why the political conversations always seemed to go awry. They usually ended in yelling matches and someone leaving in a huff before getting to a common ground in the conversation.

"Why do you always fight with your friends?" I asked my father one day after a particularly intense argument with a close friend of his. 

"This is not for you to understand. This is politics."

That short statement influenced nearly every major decision I made for the next 15 years, which brings me back to the last semester at SFU during the summer of 2020.

At the start of our first class, we met our esteemed professors, Shauna Sylvester and Daniel Savas. Shauna began our course by smashing the glass ceiling immediately and asserting she would ensure equitable space for the women to partake in dialogue.

At this moment, I realized I had stumbled into a space I was always meant to be in. I remember thinking, "I have needed the Centre for Dialogue all my life," but little did I know the Centre needed me.

The day everything shifted was the morning of May 26th, 2020—the morning after George Floyd's murder.

As I entered the class, I could tell the virtual room felt heavier than usual. I knew why immediately. Many had not yet adequately engaged with what was happening on the news, but I knew from my group chats and Black Twitter that a revolution was brewing.

The one other Black student in the class, spoke and truly articulated the depths of the grief and pain vibrating through all Black people across the world.

Being the only other Black girl in the class, I could feel the 24 Zoom-box stares waiting for me to say... something. My ears buzzed, my vision blurred and I was in the middle of a complete panic attack.

"This is not for you to understand. This is politics." I immediately opened my camera and said my piece.

Semester in Democracy was about to enter a Black dialogue revolution. Whether I liked it or not, I would have to step up to be a leader.

But, along with the rest of the world, the air in the class could never stay the same.

The terms: white supremacy, systemic colonialism and Black Lives Matter flooded every conversation. Over time, the racial disparities of the class began to crack open further and it felt like no one was really getting it.

The burden of speaking on the harsh realities of Black people fell on the few BIPOC members of the class and usually was met with muted engagement and awkward acknowledgment.

Until one of the more reserved students of the class startled the room by making a bold statement. The class had begun to debate the media coverage on the looting and riots, and I had dazed off on what was being talked about until I heard her say:

"To all the non-Black people in this classroom, I ask you all to refrain from making any statements or judgments on the means of which Black people choose to protest."

The direct call out ended up shaking egos, boundaries and conventional wisdom out the window. An eruption of emotions soon broke down barriers that so desperately needed to be torn. This courageous act prompted rich, complex and necessary conversations to be had in an honest way.

We were all navigating a worldwide tragedy from our own experience, but we were required to continue talking through the tough topics instead of going our separate ways.

It is an indisputable fact that it will be imperative for us to continue to engage in difficult conversations to decolonize our democratic culture.

Some may argue that this is an unsustainable feat to depend on dialogue as a decolonizing tool. But I would say that dialogue is a crucial component of every structural institution in our democracy.

It might not be easy to have these conversations with your coworkers or family members, but it’s important not to give up on people. The more we divide and cut people out, the more siloed we become, the more we perpetuate the systems we’re all fighting against. If both parties are committed, you can get to a common ground.

My experience as a Black student in the Semester in Dialogue program during that 2020 summer exposed the subjective biases and white supremacist culture that discreetly disintegrate our democratic social fabric. But by using dialogue values, it fostered transparent conversations that led to transformative healing. Despite being an emotionally draining experience, it also prompted me to step into my power and Black privilege in a way that transformed my reality.

This is timely as we surpass almost two years since COVID-19 shook up our world. As society continues to return to a new "normal", let us appreciate the beauty of this traumatic time. Let's continue to engage in the challenging, awkward and painful conversations that we can no longer avoid. As we attempt to enter a genuine era of decolonization, it is imperative to work on our dialogue skills as a society.

We must continue to have hard conversations to continue a momentum of change. What hard thing will you do next?  

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