Breanna Swims, right, UA alumna and recipient of a Sustained Dialogue Institute National Dialogue Award for 2016, poses with mentor and nominator Lane McLelland, director of the Crossroads Community Center at UA and a former National Dialogue Award winner, at the 3rd Annual National Dialogue Awards ceremony, which was held Nov. 17 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Breanna Swims was recently recognized as one of three Sustained Dialogue Institute National Dialogue Award Network Winners for 2016. Swims, an alumna of The University of Alabama, was honored Thursday, Nov. 17, at the 3rd Annual National Dialogue Awards, which were held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The awards are presented annually by the Sustained Dialogue Institute (SDI), an organization that works to improve community capacity to engage differences as strengths, while helping people move from dialogue to action. They define dialogue as “listening deeply enough to be changed by what you learn,” and utilize dialogue to help people transform conflictual relationships and design change processes around the world.
Swims, a Woodstock, Georgia native who serves as a scheduler and office manager for U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with minors in women’s studies and Italian in 2013, as well as a master of arts degree in gender and race studies in 2015, both from UA.
She first became interested in Sustained Dialogue (SD) after being introduced to the program as a college freshman. She quickly took on a leadership role as a moderator, and during her second year of moderation led her group to action by hosting the Mental Health Monologues, a student-performed presentation designed to reduce the stigma surrounding discussion and treatment of mental illness.
Following the completion of her undergraduate degree, Swims accepted a position with UA’s Crossroads Community Center, where she transformed the Sustained Dialogue process to a classroom model that remains in use today. Throughout a period of two years, she taught hundreds of students how to effectively communicate across the lines of difference on a large, diverse campus. She also spent five weeks in Maun, Botswana as a graduate fellow with the nonprofit Leadership Exchange, facilitating dialogues with high school students regarding cultural differences and barriers.
Lane McLelland, director of the Crossroads Community Center at UA and a former National Dialogue Award winner, in her nomination of Swims for this award, spoke of Swims’ strong questions, deep listening skills and take-action spirit as driving factors that allowed her SD group to be able to move from identifying issues affecting those who suffer with mental illness on campus to the action step of hosting the Mental Health Monologues, which were so successful that the UA chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the UA Counseling Center have taken up the charge and co-sponsored them each spring since.
“Bre Swims is an extraordinary human being and was an amazing student advocate for Sustained Dialogue throughout all six years of her undergraduate and graduate studies at the University,” said McLelland. “Because of Bre’s leadership, her small SD group was able to have a sustainable impact. At UA, Bre was always a motivating force and respected mentor for students just getting introduced to SD. Her insights and talents for engaging students were foundational for making Sustained Dialogue synonymous with positive social change at The University of Alabama.”
Following completion of her master’s degree, Swims relocated to Washington, D.C., where she serves in her current position. She continues to utilize the skills she learned in Sustained Dialogue, navigating the political climate in a way that is patient, inclusive and understanding.
“Now more than ever, we need passionate leaders who desire a better tomorrow,” said Swims. “The relationship between The University of Alabama and Sustained Dialogue signifies an openness to the myriad of perspectives that young leaders must have if they want to foster true change, understanding and compassion.
“I cannot express how honored I am to receive this award from an organization that I deeply respect, the Sustained Dialogue Institute,” said Swims. “I am grateful for their global contribution to diplomacy and cooperation, and I am humbled that I could play even a small part in their efforts.”
In addition to her professional position, Swims is involved with the Women’s Information Network, a networking group in the D.C. area. She also serves as an outreach and engagement associate for Spark Point Fundraising. She hopes to pursue a PhD in feminist philosophy and open a foundation.
“I would like to thank Lane McLelland for her professional guidance, as well as Dr. Pruitt [Samory T. Pruitt, UA vice president for Community Affairs] and the Division of Community Affairs for always supporting the needs of Crossroads Community Center, which is a valuable resource at The University of Alabama,” said Swims.
“We are very fortunate to have had an individual like Bre at the University and in a pivotal role in Crossroads,” said Dr. Pruitt. “Her efforts made a tremendous impact on our campus and her outstanding acceptance speech left no doubt with anyone in the audience that she will continue to be a driving force behind peace, reconciliation and understanding in our society and around the world.”
The awards administered by SDI recognize the work of those whose lives embody the principles and values of true dialogue, reconciliation and peace. This event serves to honor the awardees and celebrate the role of dialogue in transforming national and global conflicts.
Additional award recipients for 2016 include St. Olaf College student Don J. Williams and Keynote Award Winner, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
To learn more about SDI and the SDI process, visit http://sustaineddialogue.org
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.
By Taylor Armor
CCBP Graduate Assistant
TUSCALOOSA– Both religious and non-religious organizations filled the Ferguson Center’s Great Hall to exchange views and answer questions about their respective beliefs at the Explore Better Together interfaith event on August 22 sponsored by Crossroads Community Center.
Students, faculty, Crossroads staff and community members participated in the night’s “speed faithing” activity during an event filled with conversation and laughter. Similar to speed dating, groups of attendees met with representatives from a religious or non-religious organization and after seven minutes moved to a new one.
Attendees met with the following religious and non-religious representatives: Zyad Jamalallail of the Muslim Student Association; Alex Hoffman of the Crimson Secular Student Alliance; Father Rick Chenault of St. Francis of University Parish; James Goodlet and Kate Broach of UKirk (Presbyterian) Campus Ministry; Lisa Besnoy of the Hillel Student Center; Parnab Das of the Indian Students Association, representing Hinduism; and Harshpal Singh, representing Sikhism, the world’s fifth largest religion, originating in the Punjab region of northern India.
Paige Bolden, coordinator of Intercultural Engagement at Crossroads, said interfaith activities like these give participants a chance to meet someone different than them, and ask “awkward questions” about their respective beliefs people avoid in everyday conversation. “We hope that they gain a better understanding (and) that this event helps build relationships and bridges between the religious and non-religious on campus,” Bolden said.
Throughout the event, Lane McLelland, director of Crossroads, encouraged attendees to ask questions, listen and learn together, but that it was not a night of “challenging each other. Participating in this event and other Better Together programs at UA provides members of our campus community the opportunity to foster new connections for increased interfaith understanding,” McLelland said. “The strong relationships that are built through these dinners and dialogues and doing community service work together will be important for building bridges between groups on campus who might normally be divided by religious and philosophical differences.”
Bridging the divide between religious and non-religious beliefs has been central to the Crossroads Interfaith Initiative, which has modeled its work after the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC.org). This interfaith movement promotes religious pluralism through respect for diverse religious and non-religious identities; mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds and traditions; and common action for the common good.
Carlisle Wishard, a senior in astrophysics from Washington, D.C., admitted that being an atheist in Alabama has been a different experience for her than living in her hometown. Wishard, a member of the Crimson Secular Student Alliance, said that the organization’s involvement in UA’s Better Together: Interfaith Youth Core program has fostered a sense of belonging for non-religious students and has opened dialogue with religious organizations on campus.
“If you don’t come from an area that is particularly religiously diverse,” Wishard said, “this is one of few opportunities to meet people that don’t think exactly like you. So I think it’s good for everyone, myself included, for people to learn about different religions and not feel bad about asking questions.”
For Parnab Das, the representative of the Hindu beliefs and the University’s Indian Student Association, the curiosity of the Explore Better Together participants inspired him to become more familiar with his beliefs and practices by the next event. “I’m not here to speak for the whole Hindu society,” Das said. “I’m here to present my beliefs and faiths about Hinduism. So, I feel I need to brush up on these things, so I can be more concrete, more specific and more knowledgeable and transparent for the next time that I’m here.”
A doctoral student in civil engineering, Das brought along a trifold poster board completely covered in information on Hinduism in an anticipated effort to answer any questions from his audience.
“We have so many wrong beliefs about other religions,” Das said. “This is a good platform to work on that, to question other religions and make ourselves knowledgeable, and to live a transparent life.”
For Gevin Brown, a senior from Birmingham, Ala. majoring in design for social inclusion, the event also reinforced that culture and religion aren’t interchangeable in understanding faith-based practices and beliefs.
“While I was at the Muslim [Islam] table,” Brown said. “[Zyad Jamalallail] mentioned that certain cultures in his country oppress women but his religion does not by any means. They go together very well, but it’s important to note the difference.” Brown, who has worked as a Crossroads student intern since his freshman year, has found that interfaith dialogue positively benefits the UA community.
“These kinds of events show and create cohesion,” Brown said. “They show that even though you’re ‘XYZ’, you can still come into these uncomfortable places and make friends and grow as a person.”
UA community members interested in participating in upcoming Better Together events should contact the Crossroads Community Center at 205-348-6930 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Peter Mullins and Jianlong Yang
CCBP Student Assistants
Photos by Jianlong Yang
HOLT — Social Work graduate student Fan Yang is using her awarding-winning Heart Touch program to help elementary students understand cultures different from their own. Yang, from China, has been working for the past two years to enhance cultural competency and understanding between different ethnic groups. She engages a diverse range of foreign volunteers from the University of Alabama to work with small groups of children as a way of bonding and sharing cultural differences.
Most recently, she took her program to Holt Elementary School in Tuscaloosa County, where Peng Shi, a tai chi instructor from Tuscaloosa, demonstrated the art to 30 fourth and fifth grade students. Earlier, she originated a pen pal program between elementary students in Alabama and China to help them get to know each others’ likes and interests.
Yang’s program addresses the need for young Americans and foreign students at the University of Alabama to understand different cultures. She affirms this purpose by saying: “Both populations [of Americans and foreign students] need to know each others’ culture very well. But they just don’t have access. That’s why I created the program to provide a blackboard so that each population could collaborate in order to know both cultures.”
Yang has plans to expand her program’s resources of foreign volunteers to include Korean students. This will be an addition to her already existing group of Chinese, Japanese and American volunteers.
“We have about ten Korean students right now as volunteers at Northington Elementary School. We are trying to add a Korean culture component after these volunteers know Heart Touch better,” Yang said.
Yang came up with the idea for the Heart Touch program while working as an intern at the Center for Community-Based Partnerships. She won a CCBP Award for Student Excellence in Community-Engaged Scholarship in 2014.
In October, she began a program with Pandora White, an African-American graduate student in biochemistry, to help women and minorities see themselves as future engineers and scientists.