At its core, Fearless Dialogues is part therapeutic technique and part community organizing framework. It developed out of Dr. Gregory Ellison’s book Cut Dead But Still Alive and his experience working with people who felt their marginalization as not being fully seen. Generally, Fearless Dialogue events get together a diverse group of people who share something in common – a shared living space, shared cause, or shared belief – and leads them to see those who are often left unseen, to see each other, whether mayor, teacher, or drug dealer, as assets for building the community, and to see their own innate giftedness. This has been done with over 5,000 people in over thirty cities around the world including Nashville, Atlanta, Ferguson, and Sao Paulo.
I personally have seen it work in two different directions. I was part of the team that put on Fearless Dialogues in Nashville, Tennessee. In that instance, it was about bringing together a community that was experiencing significant marginalization to see potential in one another for rebuilding. I helped facilitate a Fearless Dialogues event with the Emory University Board of Directors. That was a much different scenario more focused on guiding people who live in a privileged position to see those who often go unseen and see an individual role for themselves in pushing back against marginalization.
Healing is deeply embedded in what Fearless Dialogues is. Coming out of Dr. Ellison’s work, one of the core messages is that marginalization is deeply traumatic. Going through life being unseen can cut someone to death – though they still live. Thus, in Fearless Dialogues, part of what happens is bringing those who are often unseen into a community that does see and helping them find their gifts for making a difference in the three feet around them. Equally, for people often doing the unseeing, Fearless Dialogues is a call to take part in a healing process – to see the harm that has been done and see a role in participating in healing.
In Sao Paulo, we had a chance to see both sides of the process. Early in the trip, there was a more formal Fearless Dialogues session held with some seminary students at a major university in Sao Paulo. The school of theology is undergoing some internal struggles between Liberationist and more fundamentalist theologians. As a nation, Brazil also struggles with race. While there are more people of African descent living in Brazil than any other place on the globe outside of Africa, few People of Color make it into higher education, and, certainly, there were few People of Color in attendance in the seminary classroom that evening. Therefore, the session was much more about learning to see the unseen and finding a role in ending lack of sight, and I saw a small version of this take place in a small group that I participated with. Besides me and one other American colleague, there were four Brazilian pastors in training. Three were outspoken, well in command of themselves, and radiated confidence. The fourth was quieter, visibly more awkward, and retiring. He shared that he often feels the need to withdraw due to lack of confidence. Within his seminary community, he often feels unseen, yet he had an important skill for the conversation. He spoke English, so he was the life line for the two Americans and the glue that held the conversation together. From this shifted dynamic, an honest and deeply sharing took place that altered the landscape of sightedness – at least in that moment.
Yet, it was in the less formal dialogue at 8:30pm at the end of a long week that really stands out for me. The kind eyed and tattooed pastor was at wit’s end. In caring with people living in extreme poverty and drug addiction – coming out of his own struggles addiction, he had run dry. Whether he found in the room of five Americans and a translator six sets of eyes that saw him, or whether he commanded our attention by the force of what he was sharing, it is impossible for me to know. However, I do know that I was deeply affected by what he shared, and I shared back what encouragement I could. It is that connection that is the essence of Fearless Dialogues for me. That we can all find strength in each other, when we actually see who is around us.