By Anna Mann
Cassie Meyer, the newest member of the Office of Civic Engagement, was hired late October of this year to serve in the newly-created position of Director of the Dialogue Across Difference programs. Meyer will serve to promote civil discourse by training faculty and student leaders to facilitate challenging discussions.
According to Meyer, the vision for the position emerged from the desire to generate programs on campus for students, faculty, and community members alike to discuss existing differences. With little more than a month of work under her belt, Meyer has already has been doing lots of what she calls “listening and asset mapping,” where she meets with campus leaders to discuss the needs and opportunities they see in their respective positions.
In the future, she plans to work extensively with faculty and student leaders to incorporate dialogue into existing programs as well as eventually beginning her own projects. Meyer searches to bridge the divisions that currently exist on Sewanee’s campus through training and subsequent conversation.
“As I’ve been getting to know people and talk to them, there’s sort of this sense that deep differences exist at Sewanee and people don’t know how to talk about them,” explains Meyer. “There’s this sense that Sewanee itself is a very small community where everyone knows everybody and you can’t really escape.”
Meyer hopes that the Office of Civic Engagement can help facilitate this space to safely and courteously talk about such differences. “There’s data that suggests Sewanee students are more ideologically diverse than on many liberal arts colleges, but students don’t feel comfortable talking about different convictions or beliefs,” Meyer explained.
Meyer saw this divide particularly after this 2016 presidential election, which she said prompted her to leave her position at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) where she had worked for more than a decade. Though Meyer loved working across college campuses and stresses that her work with IFYC helped her understand the power of storytelling, she wanted to take these teachings of empathy and apply them more broadly.
“When this position came up, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a lot of the skills I had honed in that work and apply it both to one specific campus and also think about how to take on other issues of difference, identity, and disagreement,” Meyer said.
As to the ability of dialogue to mend a country where she sees broken public discourse and nearly insurmountable political division, Meyer emphasizes the importance of practicing these conversations and developing facilitators for them. In her new position, she states she will strive to help campus leaders to recognize their strengths and develop a basic framework for conversational skills even with sensitive topics.
“Dialogue is very much a skill and an art of seeing what works in the community that you’re in and with the people that you’re working with. I’m really excited to have the chance to work on some of that with folks here,” Meyer said.