In the Tempe, future inclusive leadership begins early due to a nationally recognized program ran by the city’s Diversity Office.
Teens Conversing to Build a Better Community is a dialogue program in which teens from various upbringings, religions, and races come together to talk about issues with one another.
“The dialogues create a sense of community as well as an opportunity to meet new people,” said Belinda Chiu, an adult facilitator of the program. “The dialogues are a safe place to talk about our differences, learn to understand others, and broaden our own knowledge of other cultures and customs.”
Chiu has been a facilitator for the teen program since it was piloted in 2012.
In 2002, the diversity office was created in Tempe as a result of a class action lawsuit the city faced dealing with racial discrimination, said Rosa Inchausti, Director of the Tempe Diversity Office.
After the lawsuit, the city had a decision to make.
“We had to ask, ‘how do we become more inclusive and diverse?’” Inchausti said.
The city began working with outside parties to find the problems that led to lawsuit, as well as learn from the previous mistakes the city had made.
Immediately after creating the office, the office developed diversity dialogues with adults in the community, Inchausti said. The dialogues were used to promote communications amongst community members with different background.
The adult program was successful, but the diversity office wanted to do more for Tempe.
“Leadership is exemplified by how you handle adversity,” Inchausti said. “We needed to plan for the next wave of leaders.”
Thus, Teens Conversing to Build a Better Community began. With help from local schools and social media efforts, the diversity office has able has been able to recruit teens ages 14-18 from different schools to the program.
Each season, the program runs with a time span of anywhere between 6-7 weeks, said Ginny Belousek, coordinator for the program. All members of the program are required to attend every session.
“You can’t jump in and out of the program,” Belousek said “You are building trust.”
The program runs on the same curriculum as the adult program. The conversations begin with general topics and become more personal and intense as the weeks continue. There is a teen and adult facilitator for the program.
In the first week participants learn the rules of the dialogues and have icebreakers. In the second week, it’s family structure and upbringing are discussion. The third week focuses on religion. The fourth week discusses race. The fifth week is a discussion on local and world news. Finally, in the sixth week, the adult and teen program merge together where the two groups are able to share what they learned, Belousek said.
“The whole point of a dialogue is for it to have some freedom with the structure so people can express themselves freely, and talk about what’s on their minds,” Chiu said, “We also use break-out groups, interactive activities, and sub-group discussions to provide different ways of communicating for people with different personality types.”
During the final week participants are also asked to bring a traditional dish that defines them for a potluck.
“It’s the best cultural food,” Belousek said. “They’re bringing grandma’s recipes.”
In the 2013 teen group there were 11 participants. The majority of members were female. There was a diverse mix of races. Of the participants, one was Brazilian, two were Hispanic, four were Caucasian, one was African American Caucasian, one was Asian Caucasian, and one was Pakistani. The members also had diverse religious beliefs. There were four Catholics, two Christians, one Mormon, one Muslim, one atheist, and two agnostics. In addition, the first wave of teenagers with same-sex parents took part in the discussion.
“There have been no conflicts,” Belousek said. “We have open and accepting teens.”
In March the program received the 2013 City Cultural Diversity Award presented by the National League of Cities’ Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials at the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C.
“I feel all cities should have a similar program,” Chiu said. “I feel many of the community issues we face are due to a lack of understanding or a gap in communication. The dialogues are a safe place to talk about our differences, learn to understand others, and broaden our own knowledge of other cultures and their customs.”
The program will begin again in the fall.