Words Over Weapons

Discussing politics is no small feat, let alone leading the discussion. In efforts to learn more about each other and foster community at UC San Diego, Open Dyalog works to encourage students to speak their minds on controversial political topics and what they can do to take action.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

The Pew Research Center finds that only 17 percent of the public would be very comfortable conversing over the topic of politics with someone they did not know very well. It is not uncommon to want to avoid discussions on politics. In fact, it is often the norm to avoid uncomfortable dinners with the extended family, online Twitter fights, and most certainly the violence that incurs when stating one’s own personal beliefs.

To amend this, Open Dyalog, a student organization founded in September 2019 at UC San Diego, seeks to foster community through open discussions on politics and current issues. In June of 2019, The UCSD Guardian sat down with Zahabiya Nuruddin, Warren College senior and founder of Open Dyalog, to learn more about her journey in healing political and social disconnection in The Village at Torrey Pines. 

The UCSD Guardian: How did Open Dyalog get its start?

Nuruddin: I was a Resident Assistant for The Village last year and there were incidents of racial discrimination. People drew swastikas on my building, they yelled racial slurs, and there was a huge disconnect in my community. I completed a police report and went to each and every apartment to talk about how hate symbols and speech does not have a place in our residential community. But residents still came up to me and said they felt unsafe and disconnected [when] they were living there. 

I started hosting these weekly social justice town halls. [At first,] they weren’t very well attended. We tried to have a more professional discussion in which we would discuss what it meant to live in a cohesive community. We quickly transitioned into doing more of an open discussion where we talked about controversial topics such as abortion, immigration, and gun rights. People from different perspectives started to come together, and we had constructive conversations. No one was yelling at each other. No one was calling each other names. It was people from completely opposite ends of the political spectrum sitting in a circle in a room, eating some food together and having an honest discussion. I led one almost every week from January to June in 2019, for a total of about 15 discussions. 

The Guardian: How did you go from these Village resident hall forums to a university-wide organization?

Nuruddin: [At the time], it was just the resident community in The Village. I didn’t want to lose this steam from this movement, so as a fourth year I wanted to expand this to the rest of the university.  I wanted to expand to other residential areas and other universities. So that’s what I started working on this summer. At The Basement [Editor’s note: The Basement is a campus-wide resource hub at UC San Diego designed to support students in innovation and entrepreneurship.], I was trying to come up with a plan on how to expand. I ended up starting a student org called Open Dyalog. We then held [our discussions] in Price Center during the Fall and Winter Quarters. We started off well with a following of about 15 to 20 people at each discussion.”

The Guardian: What would these discussions look like?

Nuruddin: As an RA, I didn’t have any formal training as a facilitator. So week after week I tried different things. I would show either a video or read out an article so that the attendees could have something to begin talking about. I would do my best to create open-ended and unbiased questions to generate conversation. Primarily, we emphasized that this was an open space. It’s not like you can’t say controversial thoughts or opinions. You can, as long as you are being considerate of other people and not deliberately attacking them. 

It can be tough to know when to draw the line as a facilitator when speech begins to escalate and upset people- to address this, our facilitators emphasize the community guidelines at the beginning and repeatedly ask ‘Why?’ when a student expresses a certain thought or opinion. By continuing to ask questions, we often find that we can get to the root of the issue and discover common core values among even the most diverse groups of people.

The Guardian: What are some topics that you guys have discussed and what are some topics you hope to bring up in the future?

Nuruudin: Well, this week our topic is ‘The Blame Game’ surrounding coronavirus. But we’ve done discussions on media bias, immigration, and religion. Our mission is to start directing our discussions towards what we can actually do in our communities and future jobs concerning some of the issues. Discussions about the election and health care would be extremely interesting future topics to talk about. 

The Guardian: How has Open Dyalog impacted those who participated?

Nuruudin: One of the best parts of this experience has been training a group of 10 facilitators to lead future discussions. As a student leader for the past few years, I have gone through different conflict resolution programs. Through my hands-on experience at The Village, I developed an interactive training program to successfully equip interested students with the skills they would need to lead these discussions. The three main parts of the program include developing a leader who is self aware of their own identity and those of others, can actively and effectively participate in a discussion, and be a facilitator to lead these discussions. Not only have the skills impacted the org, but it also has an impact in their personal lives. People have conflicts with friends, roommates, and family. The skills they learn through this org are applicable to personal conflict and future careers as well.  

In Winter Quarter we started to expand to residential areas. We did about five collaborations with RAs and brought our program to their residents and led an open discussion. We worked with Muir, I-House, Warren, and others. It was really amazing to see how fast we could mobilize and hold these discussions while still maintaining that close community feel. 

The Guardian: How has Open Dyalog adjusted and responded to recent events with COVID-19?

Nuruudin: We have begun to utilize the features on Zoom to host two discussions per week. We hosted our first discussion this past Wednesday. It was interesting,  because now we have Zoom’s ‘breakout rooms’ where we can have smaller discussions and then we come back together to the main room to have a larger discussion. And we still have the same features: community guidelines, open questions. We aim to create a respectful platform where people can feel comfortable to share what is on their minds. We host discussions every Sunday at 2 p.m. and every Wednesday at 6 p.m. 

The Guardian: Where do you see Open Dyalog taking off in five years?

Nuruddin: I hope in five years it has become a platform that has grown and been self-sustained. Students have so much on their plates, and it’s hard to sustain [the retention] year after year. I’m really trying to transition it to be based on a more sustainable model in which facilitators teach the new facilitators and there is always this new energy moving forward. 

There’s also a new opportunity to expand our online platform. If we can really hone in on the online platform and reach students across the nation and even across the world, these students will be our leaders in politics and big corporations. They will be future doctors and lawyers and they will have the necessary tools to have these open discussions. Then hopefully, we will be able to deal with our world’s most pressing issues in a more constructive manner. I sincerely hope that there are passionate students that will continue to lead this movement well into the future. 

Open Dyalog meets every Sunday at 2 p.m. and Wednesdays at 6 p.m. PST. You can follow them on their Facebook page and join their discussions via Zoom.

Photo courtesy of Zahabiya Nuruddin.

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