Dialogue bubbles

CA Curious

Together towards understanding

October 1, 2020

At Cary Academy, we respect and honor that each member of our community has their own unique beliefs, values, experiences, and perspectives. We credit that diversity as one of our greatest strengths and are committed to creating an empathetic community strengthened by our differences and connected by trust. 

As the political climate increases in tension, we want to continue to offer ways to build connection and understanding across groups and social circles so that, regardless of the outcome in November, we can be together as a school community that supports and cares for one another.

One of the ways that we build that trust and connection as a community is through our Dialogue Across Difference initiative. Over the next 4 weeks, leading up to the election, CA will hold weekly dialogues in the Upper School. The topics of the first two dialogues were chosen by the student body.  The purpose of these first two dialogues is both to offer space to connect with different students about their experiences on topics of interest–and to continue to build the muscle of having challenging conversations as a community.  

For these first two dialogues, CA facilitators reached out to the Upper School student body–talking to over 60 students from various clubs, groups, and unaffiliated community members–to learn more about what students were interested in dialoguing about.  Although there were several areas of interest, there were three topics that had a majority. Upper School students will be asked to participate in both sessions of one of the following dialogues.

Understanding Our Experiences of Gender at CA

  • Oct. 7th: Diving into the complexity of our narratives around gender

Participants in this dialogue will be grouped by gender: male, female and nonbinary

  • Oct. 14th: Understanding each other and our experiences of gender

Participants in this dialogue will be in mixed groups of gender

Working together towards racial equity at CA

Reflecting on our own experiences and hearing from of other Students of Color

Students of Color are invited to join this dialogue

Reflecting on how I engage as an ally

Students that identify themselves as Allies are invited to join this dialogue

  • Oct. 14th: Coming together to work for racial equity

Participants in this dialogue will be in mixed groups of racial identities

Stress, Anxiety and Mental Health as a CA Student 

Any student is invited to join this dialogue

Any student is invited to join this dialogue

The second two dialogues (dates TBA) will be explicitly about how we are dealing with the heightened tensions of this election season and how we want to be together afterwards.

This effort is being spearheaded by the Center for Community Engagement in partnership with our Student Director of Dialogue and Open Discussion, Meirav Solomon (’20), who has been extensively trained in different dialogue techniques. She brings a transformative passion to the work that aims to leave a legacy for our community. In her words:

I am super excited and motivated to provide CA students with the necessary empathetic, authentic, and uncomfortable spaces that hold dialogue. Dialogue not only teaches you how to interact and understand more deeply those around you. It also teaches you more about the world around you and yourself. I think dialogue is super important to my growth as a student, a global citizen and a human being. I have learned to listen, I have learned to speak out, I have learned how to access my stretch zone (where I feel uncomfortable speaking but not turned off) and I have learned where my limits are. Dialogue has taught me so much and I am so excited to see what CA students learn and understand after their first two dialogue days: October 7 and 14.

Written by Danielle Johnson-Webb, Director of Equity and Community Enagagement


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Dialogue Across Differences

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Finding connection through virtual dialogue

April 16, 2020

Cary Academy has long been committed to providing a holistic learning experience that puts student wellness front and center, one that addresses social and emotional health in addition to academics. That’s why, when the Center for Community Engagement began brainstorming themes for dialogues this year, it seemed like a no-brainer to use this powerful method to dive deeper into ongoing community conversations around social and emotional health.  

Why dialogue? I’ll let one of our student leaders, junior Clay Thornton explain: 

“Cary Academy is a tight knit community that relies on strong relationships between students, faculty, staff, administrators, and parents to effectively provide students with a safe, healthy learning environment. Without frequent and honest communication, these relationships can be strained, the effects of which can be felt throughout the entire community.  

Dialogues Across Differences provides a platform for everyone in the community to candidly share their opinions on topics that have are currently causing, or could potentially cause, disruption at Cary Academy. While the purpose of dialoguing is not to come to an agreement or formulate a plan of action, it allows every member of the community to voice their opinion and work to understand other points of view.  

Dialogues Across Differences provides a platform for everyone in the community to candidly share their opinions on topics that have are currently causing, or could potentially cause, disruption at Cary Academy. While the purpose of dialoguing is not to come to an agreement or formulate a plan of action, it allows every member of the community to voice their opinion and work to understand other points of view.”

So, with faith in this powerful approach, earlier this year our student facilitators launched a series of dialogues that address one aspect of emotional health– stress and anxiety—from a variety of different perspectives and dimensions.  

Little did we know just how timely it would prove to be.  

We kicked off the series in February with a dialogue around the stress and anxiety of parenting. Parents gathered in the Discovery Studio to share their experiences, their worries, and their perspectives in what was a remarkably vulnerable and emotional experience.  

We were all touched, even overwhelmed, by how honest and authentic our parents were. We were excited to see parents who knew nothing about each other form bonds as they shared stories, advice, and support for one another. We were elated to see the connection that our parents made with our student leaders. And we swelled with pride to see how our students rose to the occasion as leaders.  

We left feeling heartened by the promise of dialogue, the strength of our community, and excited for the next session. 

And then the world changed. Suddenly, we had to figure out how to transition these conversations—these personal, intimate, vulnerable, face-to-face interactions—to a cold, impersonal, virtual world.  

Challenges abounded. We were worried about the technology. Would Zoom even work for this format?  Our student facilitators wondered if they were going to be able to make genuine connections. Would anyone be willing to be vulnerable in a virtual space?  

But, as is the CA way, we embraced the challenge as an opportunity for growth and innovation. Zooms were established. Technology was tested. And I’m proud to say, our student facilitators and our broader community embraced the opportunity.  

In fact, our first two online dialogues were even more powerful than our in-person session. Our current situation means that we are all yearning for an outside connection.  

After each dialogue I usually receive a few emails from participants thanking us for offering this space. I can often tell that most parents are surprised by how forthcoming they felt they could be in this setting, how much they get out of the experience.  

One of our student facilitators, junior Jordan Cuffee reflected on the impact she has seen on our parents who have participated in one of our three dialogues thus far: 

After both the in-person and virtual dialogues, the parents voiced their appreciation for having a space like this to speak freely about their experiences at Cary Academy. From a facilitator perspective, the small groups, communication agreements, and confidentiality rule seemed to allow the parents to really lean into being vulnerable and open.  

They knew the information they shared would remain within the group and that they could share without judgment. Both the moms and dads could relate to each other in their experiences while being a CA parent. They spoke about their own stresses, the stresses of their family, and, more specifically, the stresses for their child.  

A majority of the parents I facilitated for spoke about their desire for their child to attend CA to prepare them for a successful future. Many mentioned wanting their students to get into good colleges, which caused families to fully stress academics.  

Most of the parents I facilitated for either have, or had, multiple children in CA. They realized their family dynamic changed from a focus fully on academics to one that understands their children’s needs to explore activities on their own, to have breaks, to be checked up on, and to know it’s okay to not be perfect at everything they do.”  

I cannot overemphasize the important lifelong skills that our student facilitators have gained through this process.Empathy, communication, active listening, the ability to hold respectful space for difference. These are skills that will carry our students to college and beyond. That will not only help them in the board room, but in every aspect of their lives.  

Junior Tommy Frank shares his thoughts on being a facilitator. 

“At the heart of facilitating dialogues is one invaluable skill that extends to all interpersonal interactions: the ability to build, to coordinate a space for people with varying backgrounds and situations to work toward one purpose, at least for one brief hour or two.  

This is what makes dialogue facilitation so paradoxically tiring yet rewarding. As each participant holds onto thoughts from outside of a dialogue, the facilitator must bring everyone into the conversation, must direct their minds inward toward that common space, through their questions, through their body language, and through their dialogue’s agreements.  

I have learned this ability most directly from my experience facilitating dialogues, and I believe it will be the most relevant in my life beyond Cary Academy.  

I often notice for myself and for close friends and family that the most rewarding social activities are the hardest to organize. But though they often begin with frustration and anxiety, they end with someone saying, “We should do this more often.”  

I anticipate that what I have learned through dialogues will help me assemble efficient, productive groups of people, whether the purpose is dialogue, school- or work-related collaboration, or simply enjoyment.” 

As the year winds down and we get ready to say goodbye to our senior facilitators, we will be offering additional students the opportunity to apply to be trained as dialogue facilitators. And we encourage students to consider joining in on what has been, by all accounts, a powerful and rewarding learning experience, and one that offers something invaluable back to our community.  

 Junior Vibhav Nandagiri shares his thoughts on being selected to be a student facilitator: 

“The process of facilitation has given me a new appreciation for the act of conversation. Prior to facilitating, I took conversations and disagreements at face value, often failing to address what was at the core of pressing issues.  

More students should look to facilitate simply because it can and will change your perspective on interpersonal communication.  

Another reason to facilitate is self-improvement. Through facilitation, I picked up several soft skills that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I learned how to avoid conflict, how to listen deeply, how to communicate nonverbally, and how to be emotionally locked into a given moment.  

The final reason more students should facilitate is that they get to be part of a process that is actively seeking to make positive change in our school community. The student facilitators, as a group, are driven, caring people who all want to see the CA community better off than it was a week, month, or year ago, which in itself is an incredibly powerful message.” 

On behalf of our student facilitators and our entire Center for Community Engagement team, I invite you to join us for a dialogue the next time you see an invite in your mailbox.  

Our hope is that you discover these sessions as important opportunities to come together to share and learn from each other and to release some of the stress and anxiety that we are all currently experiencing. Ultimately, I think we will emerge as a stronger CA for it.  

 After all, as junior Sarah George points out: 

 Although the dialogues have been quite successful so far, if more parents were to join, the overall caliber of these discussions would improve.  

When there are more participants, there is a greater chance for a range of experiences to be included, enriching the conversation and providing perspectives that may not have initially been present.  

Furthermore, first-time parents have the opportunity to learn from and relate to other parents they may not regularly interact with.  

These dialogues ultimately work to create discussions that will be for the benefit of the students. 

Below you can find a tentative schedule for upcoming dialogues (more may be added in the near future). We hope that you can join us at one of them.  

 Student-only dialogues 

  • Student facilitators, Stress and Anxiety:  April 20 and 21, 10:00-11:30 a.m. 
  • Upper School Student Dialogue, Stress and Anxiety: April 27 and 28, 10:00-11:30 a.m. 
  • Middle School Student Dialogue, Navigating these Times: May 4 and 5, 10:00-11:30 a.m. 

Faculty/staff dialogue 

  • Teaching in this Moment: April 23 and 24, 8:00-9:30 a.m. 

Parent dialogue 

  • Parenting Students of Color: April 25, 11:30 a.m. 

Alum dialogue 

  • Early Alum Dialogue, Navigating these Times: May 9, 11:30 a.m. 

Written by Danielle Johnson-Webb, Director of Equity and Community Engagement

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Dialoguing across difference

October 18, 2018

As a learning community committed to discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence, we believe in recognizing, respecting, and celebrating the unique array of experiences, perspectives, and contributions that each person brings to our community. It is imperative that students feel our school is a supportive space where their unique voices and perspectives will be received with respect, integrity, and compassion.

As such, it is crucial that we equip students with the requisite skills to constructively dialogue and learn with those whose opinions and beliefs might be different from their own.

To that end, last year we embarked on a schoolwide process to build individual empathy and collective capacity for conversations around challenging topics. For this important work we have collaborated with Essential Partners, a consulting firm that is known internationally for their expertise in using structured dialogue to bridge differences and build community. Last March, the Upper School worked with Essential Partners to use these protocols to discuss feelings of safety and security after the mass shooting tragedy in Parkland, Florida.

This moment—with the national conversation saturated with political discourse in advance of midterm elections—presents a timely opportunity to not only continue the meaningful dialogue work started last year but broaden it to include our entire community. Next Thursday, October 25, both the Middle School and Upper School will participate in their first facilitated dialogue of the year, focusing on personal values and beliefs.

To ensure that students feel comfortable, empowered, and supported in this work, these conversations will happen in trusted advisory groups and be co-facilitated by a faculty and staff member who have been trained in Essential Partners’ dialogic techniques. Faculty and staff will not be participating in the dialogue themselves but will provide and hold the framework for student discussion.

I want to underscore that these reflective dialogues are not about debate or persuasion, but about equipping students with the needed skills to create respectful dialog with people that may have different perspectives. They are personal, not partisan. They are an opportunity to talk about personal experiences and how they have shaped held values. They are an opportunity to listen to others’ experiences with resilience and curiosity, particularly if it involves hearing something that differs from a personally-held point of view.

An Invitation for Parents

Thursday’s activities will begin with an assembly for the Middle and Upper Schools where John Sarrouf of Essential Partners will connect our conversations with his wider work in communities and schools around the world. Then at 1:45 pm, while students are in their meetings, Essential Partners will also host a dialogue in the Discovery Studio for parents interested in experiencing the process first-hand. That session will end at 3 pm. Finally, at 6 pm in U201 (second floor, Upper School building) Essential Partners will host an information session open to all parents, where you will have an opportunity to ask questions about the day’s activities.

There is room in this process for everyone, and we would love to have you involved. Over the next week, we encourage families to consider some “dinner table” conversation starters that might help spark student reflection and sharing on the 25th. You might consider talking about any one of the following:

  • What school core value—respect, integrity, compassion—resonates most with you, and why?
  • Share a story from your past that you think of as one of the first moments you remember caring about an issue or a political idea.
  • Who in the world (other than your parents) do you most admire and why?
  • What local issue in the community is most concerning to you?
  • If you had more time to volunteer, what would you do? Why is that important to you?

Thank you for supporting your students as we undertake this critical work, which is directly linked to our strategic vision to cultivate self-directed and bold life-long learners who make meaningful contributions to the world. I hope to see some of you next Thursday, October 25, at the parent dialogue at 1:45 pm or in the 6 pm evening information session.


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It’s Good to be Heard

May 10, 2018

Many of you have heard me greet members of our community with the phrase, “It’s good to see you.” And, the response can be “It’s good to be seen”.  Well, I’d like to add a little bit more to that lineup; “It’s good to be heard.”

Lately, I’ve been observing the public discourse displayed in a variety of genres such as social media, television, and radio. From my perspective, it is very hard for some people to listen to each other when they are on opposing sides of a topic, initiative, or idea.  Our school has found a practical way to engender common respect while having some public and social discourse.  Over the past year, the Leadership Team, CA students, and CA colleagues have worked with Essential Partners to create an atmosphere to promote greater understanding, and perhaps it will lead to problem-solving, through Dialogues Across Difference.

I think back to the many arguments my brother, Bruce, and I had growing up.  We were only 2.5 years apart; however, we were seemingly light years apart from everything you can imagine – school, ideology, clothing, food, and sports- especially sports.  Often, I think our primary goal was to get under the other’s skin; one of us had to have the “last word.”  The funny thing is that no matter how much discourse or disagreement we had – at the end of the day, we were still brothers that were willing to stand up for each other.  I hope the same sentiment can happen for our community members as well.  We can agree and disagree on a variety of things.  At the end of the day,  we are still members of the same family – the human family.

Recently, Essential Partners worked with a small group of parent leaders that will facilitate these courageous conversations with our parent population in the fall.  The group spent 10 hours together; being trained how to facilitate Dialogues Across Difference.  Here are a few comments about the experience from the participants.

Through the Facilitating Dialogue Across Differences training, CA provided parents with an incredible opportunity to learn how to share our authentic stories and listen to understand each other.  This module for dialogue allowed all of us in the training to connect on the human level.  I look forward to using the dialogue model shared in any capacity to help CA continue the important work of staying curious about each other and our entire school community. ~ Ashley Techet

Working with Essential Partners I discovered new ways of fostering discussion within a multi-viewpoint community.  I learned how to structure an environment that nurtured trust and was free of judgment. The goal is that everyone leaves with greater understanding and a feeling of being understood. ~ Parul Shah

Essential  Partners helped me view conversations through a completely new lens.  They taught us to “Listen to understand.  Speak to be understood,” and that “Behind every belief is a person.  Behind every person is a story.” ~ Paula Corkey

I know this process is not the answer to everything that stresses our community, but it is a courageous start.  Can you imagine a community that sees your humanity and hears your voice?   Can you imagine a community that comes together across our divides; across our differences? If you are curious about what that looks like and feels like, look no more.   We are building that community together right now! We see and “HEAR” you.

One last thing, one of my colleagues, Mina Harris, attended several CA related diversity events recently.  Here is her reflection; she will have the “last word.”

One of the many perks of working at CA, for me, is the opportunity to attend diversity training and lectures. Just this week I was fortunate to attend both the NCAIS Diversity & Inclusion Conference and the PTAA panel discussion on Generational Similarities & Differences. I feel that it’s important for all of us to continuously strive to improve our ability to relate to and empathize with one another and these two sessions both focused on this issue. The common thread, though discussed from different perspectives, was that in order to improve our relationships and interactions with others we need to do two things: (1) try to see issues/situations from the other person’s perspective and (2) become aware of our own unconscious biases. I appreciate being involved in discussions and learning about studies that help me make myself and my community a better place. ~ Mina Harris

Written by Jason Franklin, Director of Diversity & Inclusion


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