Healing through dialogue?
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There are no shortages of suggestions and recommendations. Often packaged as solutions, many are designed to attenuate the deep-seated issues that hack away at our core. Yet as a young Guyanese, living through somewhat turbulent times, I am yearning to experience real commitment—we need to heal.

Could dialogue be our solution?

According to Adrienne B. Dessel (2010), intergroup dialogue is a process of facilitating group conversation to listen and share. It is not meant to be a space for one-way communication but rather, a safe space to express oneself and interrogate the learned biases, prejudices, and stereotypes we might have. Dessel also notes that it can be used as a vehicle to foster trusting relationships, visibilise commonality, and ideally, to promote social justice.

I was first exposed to intergroup dialogue in August 2017, during an exchange programme in the United States. I spent a few weeks immersing myself in leadership training and cross-cultural learning. There, dialogue was a staple part of my experience.

Then, I was bunched together with young Caribbean idealists (‘Impatient Optimists’, we eventually dubbed ourselves). Each of us were as impressionable as they come, but were also filled with our own opinions and ideas. We were placed into smaller groups- the dialogue groups- where we sat in a circle and took the time to get to know each other, become comfortable with each other, and eventually, share our thoughts and feelings about the issues in our daily lives and our home countries.

Initially, it felt as though it was a simple activity, but I soon realised that it was not only a safe space for me to share, but also to recognise and interrogate misconceptions, biases, and prejudices I held.
I have since felt empowered to speak, to listen to others, and to cultivate that willingness to question my beliefs.

Cognisant of the racial tensions planted under the surface and germinating when the conditions are just right, I think about the possibility of extrapolating this to communities across Guyana. I believe that well-facilitated dialogue groups can serve as safe spaces for us to navigate our ethnic insecurities, interrogate those learned prejudices and biases we have towards each other and eventually, help forge a more cohesive society.

“Although the various racial groups have shared a common space for over one century, they are by and large relative strangers…To get them more acquainted, there is need for more open and constructive dialogue,” Kampta Karran (1994) wrote in his paper on bridging the racial divide in Guyana.

Karran also emphasised that Guyana’s cultural diversity must be seen as an asset rather than the mechanism through which wedges have been driven into, in an attempt to divide us.

I have read research paper after research paper from scholars who proffer both grandiose and simple solutions to our problems. The use of group dialogue has been the simplest yet most profound one I have read so far (though I admit, my personal experiences may influence my bias).

Now, as much as I can use this space and these words to excoriate all the people (including politicians and leaders) whom I expect better from, too often I find myself questioning: what is the point? I had not realised how much I normalised the paucity of respectable politics in Guyana, until I was in another country, joining the criticisms for the same disheartening politics.

I have spent the past nine months away from my home, stuck in Trinidad. During that time, I watched Guyana celebrate 50 years as a Cooperative Republic, then descend into a political quagmire. I compared Guyana’s less-than-optimal handling of a global pandemic to that of my host country, which was effectively coping with COVID-19 (at least, it was, a few months ago). Now, I am back home and I see our frontline workers demand better treatment, while the families of the late: Joel Henry, Isaiah Henry, and Haresh Singh have still not received any justice.

The point, however, is to keep trying. A few weeks ago, I asked a professor I admire if he is ever daunted by the task of researching solutions for Guyana, which may never be acted upon. He reminded me of Hindu scriptures where Krishna told Arjuna to fulfill his duties and not worry about rewards; he said he offers ideas of what is possible, but is not daunted by whether they materialise now or not. He tries how he knows to try.

Dialogue presents itself as one of those ways that can help us to try, too. National healing cannot be achieved through a televised concert, no matter how immaculate the production is. And it is not being achieved through the perpetuation of ethnopolitics, which, evidently, has been exacerbated over the past few months.

Meaningful dialogue will probably demand resources and commitment. But, what is the alternative? Who benefits from our paucity of cohesion? Who benefits from the incendiary relations we have?

If you would like to discuss this column or any of my previous writings, please feel free to contact me via email: vish14ragobeer@gmail.com

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