Tackling the tough topics

by cmmyers  |   

Libby Roderick, associate director of UAA's Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence (CAFE) and creator of the Difficult Dialogues program, welcomes guests to a lecture by indigenous author, activist and two-time Green Party candidate for Vice President, Winona LaDuke in November 2018. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

In 2008, Libby Roderick, associate director of UAA's Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence (CAFE), director of the Difficult Dialogues Initiative and vice president of a national nonprofit dedicated to dialogue skills in higher education, touched down in South Africa to help a university launch a program to support faculty-led difficult conversations in their classrooms about race, culture, religion and politics. Topics that, fast-forward to the present day, Roderick says have divided our country.

"I think we are as polarized as any of us wants the nation to get," said Roderick. "So it becomes increasingly important that we are capable of engaging in respectful dialogue with each other about critical issues, because when dialogue breaks down, we begin to enter into territory where most of us don't want to go and territory that doesn't really resonate with a democracy."

For nearly two decades, but really, her entire career, Roderick has become an expert in bringing groups of people together to teach them how to tackle the toughest and most divisive topics to create a more understanding, empathetic and inclusive community, which at UAA has become a focus with faculty and staff involved with the Difficult Dialogues work.


Like so many sweeping changes that happened after 9/11, Roderick said the Ford Foundation recognized the growing rise of religious and racial tension in our country and in an especially unexpected place. A place traditionally seen as open and welcome - college campuses. 

"Faculty were finding what they said in class was being tracked and monitored and outside organizations were paying students to post about them online," said Roderick. "Many of the faculty were feeling intimidated about teaching the important topics they knew they needed to teach, so the Ford Foundation took steps to promote pluralism on our campuses and protect academic freedom."

What the Ford Foundation did next was issue a call for proposals for all accredited universities inviting them to customize their proposal to their individual campuses. UAA jumped at the opportunity, partnering with U-Med neighbor Alaska Pacific University (APU) to submit a joint proposal. 

Nancy Lindborg, president and CEO of the U.S. Institute of Peace, records a conversation with Roderick during her visit to UAA in October. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Of the 700 applicants, 26 proposals were funded, including UAA. In 2006, with a team of UAA and APU faculty and administrators, Roderick began her work in creating what would become the Difficult Dialogues Initiative. Originally, Roderick said the main focus of the proposal was to train faculty in how to introduce appropriate controversial topics purposefully and mindfully in the classroom. In addition, the Books of the Year program was created, which continues today, with discussions, art shows, forums, and classroom assignments related to shared texts and themes. The Difficult Dialogues Initiative has become hugely successful in the state, across the nation and globally as a model for organizations to use when broaching difficult and controversial topics. Out of the Ford Foundation's initial proposal, several books, as well as e-Learning materials have been made created and are available through the Difficult Dialogues website. Although the money dried up after the 2008 financial crisis, the legacy of what was started nearly two decades ago continues on.

Difficult Dialogues round two

Difficult Dialogues was so successful that Roderick said the Ford Foundation invited UAA to participate in a second round of grants, which only 13 universities nationwide were invited to do. This time the focus shifted to engaging in difficult dialogues on Indigenous issues both within and outside the academic community.

"We learned that most non-native people needed more exposure to Alaska Native ways of being, knowing, learning, teaching - all of it - before they could respectfully engage in a truly difficult dialogue across those boundaries," said Roderick. She said that most people in the academic setting had either no information, too little information or misinformation, about Alaska's Native people's, all of which needed to be corrected before work on creating an inclusive teaching environment in the classroom could take place. 

So the book, "Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education" was created, and focuses on helping faculty address difficult dialogues related to Indigenous issues in the classroom. Roderick said that related workshops held at UAA and around the country are led by Alaska Native Elders and educators.

Roderick said the program has been hugely impactful at UAA and across the country as a model on how to bridge the world of academia with Indigenous cultures and practices.

Roderick's programs are hugely successful and she has been asked to speak and conduct faculty development workshops around the country and across the globe. Through the course of years teaching her programs, she learned that it wasn't the classroom setting where faculty were struggling the most with difficult dialogues. It was the break room.

Colleague to colleague

"The classroom is not where my most difficult dialogues are - it's with my colleagues," said Roderick of feedback she'd heard over the years from faculty. "It's within my department."

Roderick said the requests kept coming in from departments and university leadership from both UAA and institutions in the Lower 48. How do we create an inclusive community within our departments, with our own colleagues?

"Truly, I didn't want to tackle toxic behavior in academic departments - it's a bit of a hornet's nest - and a whole different kind of challenge than in the classroom issues," said Roderick. "But it was everywhere." 

But Roderick took the project head on, working with multiple groups to create a program that includes interactive theater, a video and discussion guide, as well as skill-building techniques on how to engage with someone with whom you might disagree or who is engaging in toxic behaviors. 

Roderick said that although the Ford Foundation is no longer tied to the Difficult Dialogues Initiative, the ideas and principles live on as she continues her work through CAFE to promote a mindful, respectful, engaging and inclusive culture at UAA and universities across the country.

"At its heart, this work is truly about the preservation of democracy," Roderick said. "Because if you cannot talk to each other about the hardest issues, things start to degenerate. And no one wants that to happen."

Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement

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