Katie Hyten Explains how Essential Partners is Taking Dialogue to Scale


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Newsletter #165 — October 17, 2023

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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

by Heidi Burgess 

October 17, 2023

On October 3, 2023, I had a delightful and inspiring conversation with Katie Hyten, Co-Executive Director of Essential Partners (EP). Several months earlier, in a post entitled "Contradictory Thoughts About Dialogue," Guy Burgess and I had observed that dialogue was very effective at changing attitudes, at least for awhile, on a small scale (among immediate participants). But it was very difficult to scale up those impacts, or create lasting change. Bob Stains, a friend and colleague from long ago who still works with EP, suggested we talk to Katie, because, he said, EP has come a long way since its early days as the "Public Conversations Project" and was doing a great deal to effectively scale up its interventions. I was intrigued, and was delighted that Katie was willing to take the time to talk to us.


Why the "Rebrand" from the Public Conversations Project to Essential Partners and How that Relates to Scale

We started out discussing EPs name change, which had always puzzled me.  PCP was well known and highly respected in the dialogue world.  Why change its name and obscure its strong reputation?  Katie explained:

For us, it [the name change] was a long time coming, in part because we'd been around since 1989. So it felt a bit silly, still calling us a “project.” And in part, because so much of our work no longer happens in the public sphere. And a lot of it is in training and capacity building and really partnering with organizations and communities to help them do what they do more effectively and be in places where people have a deep sense of belonging, really strong relationships across differences, and hope that they can do what they need to do together.

At the same time, though, she explained that they have "really doubled down on our roots..."

our founders, including Laura Chasin and Sally Ann Roth, and many of our founders, were all family therapists and family systems therapists, particularly, which makes us a little bit unique in the field of dialogue and conflict resolution and peacebuilding. It also, I think, gives us a really unique orientation to this work because, just like in a family, no community or institution will ever eradicate conflict or difference. ...

we need to make space for people to wrestle with their differences, to engage across their differences, and to build community, even in the midst of differences in ways that are resilient enough to withstand truly difficult moments. And we see that every day in our work, which is really lovely.

So what our work really focuses on now is helping shift the fabric of the DNA of our partners over time in ways that model and reflect the best ways in which they are already working. So, it's adaptable, it's scalable, and it's able to be authentic for each space that we work in. So, we want to equip people over time to hold this, not just in the separate space of dialogue, which still certainly will happen, but also to embed it within the life of that space.

Katie went on to give examples:

So whether it's a school that is using dialogic principals in their classrooms, and all of their teachers are helping equip their students with these skills, but also teaching the curriculum in a dialogic way, or a YMCA that's embedding dialogic elements into their programming, or a library that's thinking about how to support places for community connection in their programming, or a city government that does its community meetings and community engagement differently because of their work with us, we want to embed it [dialogue] so that the system changes, because we know that no matter what happens with this issue, regardless of what "this issue" is in your context, the next issue is just going to be right around the corner. So we want to help prepare you for that, too.

In one school they work in in North Carolina, they were thinking about what students need to be successful and to thrive. During the height of the pandemic, some of the students facilitated conversations about mental health, anxiety, and stress—not only with other students, but with parents too, who came in and talked about their own experiences with the pandemic. "It was incredibly powerful for them [the parents]. It was incredibly powerful for the students. . . .over time, you start to see a holistic shift in some of these in the schools where we work, especially, because you start to see them turn to dialogue and say, 'you know, we have a tool that we can work on this with."

EP is working with a lot of different entities in the "Triangle Area" near Raleigh, North Carolina. One of the police officers who had participated in one of their trainings several years ago was recently named Chief of Police of his town. 

And he started saying, "I'm actually going to be using this dialogue methodology for all of our community engagement for our whole department, for the police, because this is now how we're going to do it. It's just how we're going to do things." And that's what we hear over and over, that once you take it out of this kind of separate space, these tools become just how you do things around here.

So it becomes how you have your one-on-ones. It becomes how you have your team meetings. And then you also begin to see opportunities to collaborate across organizations. So one of the schools that we worked at in North Carolina actually partnered with the police to talk about school safety and creating a more safe community, especially for their students of color. And so that became a really powerful opportunity to build ties across these institutions, that once you've had deep transformation, you can start to see that scale.

Maintaining the Quality of the Process

I followed up with Katie about student facilitators, wondering whether they had adequate training to deal with high levels of emotion that often surface in dialogues.  She explained that all the student facilitators were trained directly by EP, or by teachers who were themselves trained by EP to be dialogue trainers.  Plus, she said:

we have found that students grab onto this in beautiful ways, that they are able to take this role and take the importance of it really seriously and that they're hungry for opportunities to feel a sense of belonging, to support and create a sense of belonging for others.

The other thing that you might remember about our work is that because we have a systems lens that we take to conversations, a lot of our work is around creating a container that can support difficult conversations and in doing a lot of the preventative work so that it's both less likely that damage happens, and also easier to recover from it and to help a group move forward together, whatever that means, right? If that's taking a break or disbanding for a moment or whatever it might need.

So I think that also helps it also helps to have a model that isn't dependent on you having 10 to 15 years of facilitation experience to facilitate very hard conversations. We’re helping these students, we're helping schools create containers that are intentionally structured and intentionally designed with clear communication agreements so that it's easy for them to bring folks back to that container, and it's less likely to be disrupted. 

More Ways EP Promotes Scale Up

Another way this scales up is that people see it working in other organizations, and want to implement something similar in their own organizations:

what's often happening with our work right now is that people will see, you know, other YMCAs, for example, doing something differently.  And then they'll say, "Wait, what is this? How do you do this? I would love to do this." And so it kind of grows that way,  where as long as you can have models and examples of something different that's working, that those give kind of a spark of hope to people who didn't know that another way was possible.

So I think our challenge right now is helping people understand that another way is possible and then help kind of scaffold in that support so that we can meet folks where they're at.

In addition to doing trainings, EP has an enormous number of training materials on their website (in the resource area) which are available for free. They are coded by sector (civic and community, faith, workplace and organizations, schools, etc.), by topic (abortion, inequality, religion, environment, partisanship, etc.), by content type (article, examples, exercises, handouts, lesson plans, etc) and finally by skills taught: arranging the space, connecting to content, reflective practices, building agreements, etc.  Katie reported that those resources impacted 500,000 people last year.  Now that really is scale!

Sustainability of Relationship Transformations

We went on to discuss sustainability—how to make the relationship changes that come about during dialogue to last over time. Katie said that they address this challenge two ways.  First, they seldom ever take people out of their "normal environment" to do a dialogue and then go home to people who don't think and act that way. 

So rather than bringing people out and then having them go back into a dysfunctional system, we're actually working to change that system from the beginning. And it's a very, very grassroots approach. . . .[the] grassroots local focus for us helps not ignore the systemic factors that are very much getting in the way, but empowering the people who are doing the work.  The coalition of the willing of people who are already working to make their students' lives better, working to make their program attendees' lives better, working to make their library more accessible to everyone. Those folks will continue to do the work and continue to do it in effective ways because they realize that it works and it makes a difference.

They also "never leave folks." They make it easy for trainees to call them for further advice. They have monthly office hours and alumni-only webinars, and get togethers for people who are doing similar work. EP wants them to know that

they're not alone in this work, that Essential Partners will always be there to support, to empower, but also to fill up that sense of hope — Because especially the folks who are doing this work in the world right now, it is hard work. It is hard, hard work. ... So you want to make sure that [they] have a place to go to be taken care of, too, because so much of those folks spend so much of their time giving.

EP also checks back with many of their alumni for EP's internal evaluation process, which is extensive.  They check interview people they have worked with in the past to find out if and how they have been able to use the skills they learned at the EP workshops, what challenges they have faced, what successes they have had.  Since it's not done by an external evaluator, some funders or other observers may find it less "objective," but that's not the point. "it's more about our own learning, about our own efficacy, and what we know about the impact of our work. It also deepens those relationships that we have with our partners and helps people feel closer and more connected to us like we're a resource from the very beginning."

Networking with Katie and Essential Partners

Katie ended our discussion by noting

I would love to get to know some of the people who read your newsletter, whether they're in the US or not. All the things we've talked about, whether it's connecting with other people doing the work, connecting with people doing the work in their own institutions, or people who are just looking for free resources, I want you to know that you're not alone, that we would love to show up and be in partnership with you and be in relationship with you because this work can be exhausting, especially these days. So, we're here to be a part of that larger community.

We can't share our mailing list with Katie, of course, because it is private. But if any of our readers are interested in taking Katie up on this invitation go EP's Contact Page.

There's Much More!

This is just a cherry-picked selection of things we talked about.  The full interview has much, much more.  I hope you'll watch it! 


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