Fearless Dialogues: A New Movement for Justice

Fearless Dialogues: A New Movement for Justice


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Drawing on all the community's collective voices—from 'doctors to drug dealers' —Fearless Dialogues is a groundbreaking program that seeks real solutions to problems of chronic unemployment, violence, and hopelessness. In cities around the United States and now the world, the program's founder, Gregory C. Ellison, and his team create conversations among community members who have never spoken to one another, the goal of which are real, implementable, and lasting changes to the life of the community.

These community transformations are based on both face-to-face encounters and substantive analysis of the problems the community faces. In Fearless Dialogues: A New Movement for Justice, Ellison makes this same kind of analysis available to readers, walking them through the steps that must be taken to find common ground in our divided communities and then to implement genuine and lasting change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780664260651
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Publication date: 11/10/2017
Pages: 186
Sales rank: 593,614
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Gregory C. Ellison II is assistant professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Candler School of Theology. He is the author of Cut Dead but Still Alive and the cofounder of Fearless Dialogues, a grassroots community initiative that draws unlikely partners together to create positive change in self and others.

Read an Excerpt


Fear+Less Dialogues Introduced

No dogs nip at my heels as I outstretch the three-feet measuring tape overhead, but I feel the ancestral presence of freedom fighters hoisting picket signs. With fists clenched on each side of the measuring tape, I sense a kinship with young activists who throw up their arms in protest and bow their knee to die-in. Unchoked by tear gas, my legs stand firm. But my unclouded eyes still water as I recall the faces of a hundred hues.

For a solitary moment, I gaze silently into the eyes of remembered faces standing before me. They too hold three-feet measuring tapes above their heads. Through my watery eyes, I see them clearly. There is the former gang leader in New Orleans with the garish knife wound chiseled around his neck from ear to ear. To his left, the Spanish-speaking New York pastor and the wheelchaired activist from Georgia. My eyes continue to rove the room and I peep the quizzical grin of the aging white male business tycoon. Next to him, I behold the prophetic vision of the brown-faced girl from Ferguson, who saw a flash of heaven in her community where others saw only hell. I look around the room and recall the faces of thousands of unlikely partners drawn together by Fearless Dialogues for hard heartfelt conversations.... Then I see Monique Rivarde.

Twelve months before Fearless Dialogues entered public discourse, I met Monique in a crowded courtroom. A cloud cover of rage hovered over the sentencing, and teardrops showered down this mother's cheeks. Nevertheless, undeterred by fear, Monique looked squarely into the eyes of the murderers of her eighteen-year-old son and challenged them to commit to become better men. Not once did Monique raise her voice, but when she spoke, people leaned in closer to hear. Months later in a Fearless Dialogues community conversation about police brutality, Monique sat amid a cloud of witnesses numbering nearly two hundred and offered another challenge: See and hear the pains of the unacknowledged all around us. Her words reverberated through every soul in the room. Again, she spoke barely above a thunderous whisper.

Rivarde represents a form of resistance that is quiet and forceful. According to Kevin Quashie, "resistance" that is solely described as a deafening outcry "is too clunky, vague and imprecise to be a catch-all for a whole range of human behaviors and ambitions." When quiet resistance is overlooked in history, it is possible to uplift the strides of televised protest and stamp out the acts of day-to-day resistance of the millions, like Monique, who will never make the headlines. Fearless Dialogues equips communities to see the invisible, to hear the muted, and to create change through quiet resistance and fearless speech.


Seeking Truth through Troth

It was a sweltering afternoon in May 2013, yet colleague after colleague filed into the conference room. The summer seminar doubled as a think tank, and all in attendance were primed for conversation and eager to bring to life theories from my first book, Cut Dead but Still Alive: Caring for African American Young Men. Twelve in total, we encircled the conference table. Before speaking I scanned the room and took notice of these unlikely partners. Around the table were a power-plant engineer, a marketing executive, a graphic designer, a community organizer, a drug dealer turned artist, an IT specialist, a freelance journalist, a professional singer, a pastor, a fashion designer, and a corporate attorney. Once the room settled, I quietly searched the eyes of every individual in the circle. Behind every cornea, I saw a story. Beyond every iris, there lay a gift. In the silence that followed, I could sense the ancestors and archangels blessing the work before us and the unborn unbridling our tongues. Breaking through with quiet resistance, I uttered six simple words of invocation, "It's good to finally see you."

For the next hour, full-hearted introductions flowed freely in the space; it was evident that this gathering of gifted persons possessed great potential for catalyzing change. Yet between introductions a discomforting silence lingered near. A closer look revealed that subtle smiles and uneasy laughter masked a nervous energy. Person after per- son recounted grim tales of similar gatherings of impassioned leaders. Each of these narratives echoed a tragic cycle:

Impassioned leaders gather.

The perils of paternalism, territorialism, and fear stifle conversation.

With no framework for dialogue, the leaders retreat to familiar theories, practices, and dogmas.

Creativity, collaboration, and change dissipate.

Frustrated leaders depart.

Seeking to chart a course that would avoid dialogical derailment, we declared a troth.

Centuries ago, individuals and communities inscribed sacred bonds with each other by declaring a troth. The Old English word "troth" is an ancient vow where persons or communities entered a covenant to engage in a mutually accountable and transforming relationship. These solemn promises forged relationships of trust and faith in the face of unknowable risks. Our troth was simple. We covenanted to train our eyes to see individuals and communities hidden in plain view. We vowed to attune our ears to hear the muted who scream from the shadows. During our training and attunement, we pledged to remain in community and to address any rising discord in our group with courage and humility. This troth would illumine our way and guide our interactions.

For weeks we read, ate, and shared together. We were far from an ordinary class; the city was our laboratory. So together we walked urban streets, learning from community organizers and local pastors, swapping stories with griot-like grandmothers and down-to-earth drug dealers. In time, we recognized small yet noticeable shifts in the world around us. We were seeing differently. We were hearing differently. We were changing internally.

But just as our vision was clarifying, blind rage circulated on social media. Though we were hearing more deeply, we could not ignore the fever pitch of discord scouring national news:

George Zimmerman Found Not Guilty and Goes Free

Twitter Erupts After Ex-Neighborhood Watchman Walks on ... Murder Charge

Ivy League Professor Calls "God a Racist" after Zimmerman Verdict

Verdict Doesn't End Debate in Trayvon Martin Death

'No Justice': Thousands March for Trayvon Martin

After Zimmerman Verdict, Trayvon Martin Isn't Only Victim

President Obama: Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me

White Churches Uncommonly Quiet after Zimmerman Verdict

In the days following the July 13, 2013, verdict that found George Zimmerman not guilty for the murder of Trayvon Martin, constructive conversations seized. At dinner tables and lunch counters, dialogues were wedged between screams for justice and silent sorrow. Thousands jammed onto city streets and civic squares in protest, while even more sat at home in moral conflict, questioning their complicity or justifying their silence in fear of being labeled a bigot. A space was needed for hard heartfelt conversations that could transform a powder keg of emotion into a creative medium for change.

The time had come for Fearless Dialogues to move from theory to practice. So the twelve who gathered around that conference table in May sent out a call to action on social media, public radio, and print media: "We will have a community conversation about the Zimmerman verdict on July 20, 2013. All are welcome!"

Heaven on Earth: A Movement Unfolds

Rain pelted the summer-scorched concrete and steam rose like a numinous fog. Despite the traffic jams that gripped Atlanta, three hundred people bypassed bottlenecks and navigated side streets to find their way to Emory University. Each was unsatisfied with age-old options of writing their congressperson or toting placards on the capitol steps. Some needed a place to be seen and chose to no longer scream from the shadows. Others sought a space to hear the opinions of real people, not just thoughts of political pundits. Sifting through the fog, they searched for change ... and we welcomed them with Radical Hospitality in the parking lot. Each person received the same introduction: "It's Good to See You. Welcome to Fearless Dialogues. Are You Ready for Change?"

As they entered the building, live music colored the air. Standing at a registration table adjacent to the door, a Fearless Dialogues team member greeted each person again with the same three prompts: "It's good to see you. Welcome to Fearless Dialogues. Are you ready for change?" At this table the dialogue continued as the community leaders gathering for conversation selected name tags that uniquely described the gifts of their soul. A judge chose a name tag that read "healer." Emory's assistant provost picked a name tag reading "artist." A single mother placed an "educator" name tag on her dress, while a factory worker selected a name tag labeled "neighbor." Once self-identified by their gifts, community leaders were invited upstairs by another Fearless Dialogues team member, who offered our signature salutation once more: "It's good to see you. Welcome to Fearless Dialogues. Are you ready for change?"

Overwrought by seven days of sensationalized media slander, schism, and debate over Zimmerman's not-guilty verdict, these three hundred people proudly, even if tentatively, wore their soul-gifts on display. Many came seeking to understand and to be understood. Some sought a shoulder to cry on, while others yearned for a venue to vent. Jam-packed in the room, we anticipated hard conversation, but we could not pinpoint exactly what might happen that evening. After preliminary introductions and an explanation of the Fearless Dialogues philosophy, groups were divided based on the name tags chosen during registration. Not only did neighbors sit around tables with artists, healers, and educators. These groups also brought foundation executives, small-nonprofit leaders, factory workers, students, and drug dealers face to face.

Before conversation began, we introduced the Fearless Dialogues "animators" in the room. Unlike workshop facilitators, who call out participants raising their hands or waiting their turn to speak, Fearless Dialogues animators are uniquely trained to bring conversations to life. These animators give inspiration, encouragement, and renewed vigor to unlikely partners in dialogue.

After the animators laid out the ground rules for dialogue, they guided these small groups into conversation. On that first day, we had not yet developed our signature-theory based experiments, but the twelve of us who sat around that conference table and walked the city streets together noticed an uptick of hope as the exchanges between the three hundred deepened. Lifted by the energy of connecting with unlikely partners in hard heartfelt conversation, the three hundred ended their time together by hoisting three-feet measuring tapes in the air and accepting a simple challenge.

Nearly an hour after taking the three-feet challenge, the band had played their last note, but the steady hum of conversation continued. Dozens of unlikely partners clung to the moment and remained deeply engaged in dialogue. We underestimated the impact of Radical Hospitality. We underappreciated the value of crafting space for unlikely partners to see the invisible and hear the muted. Then I had an unforgettable encounter as I exited the building.

Nearly out the door, one young man who sold drugs pulled me to the side and looked deeply into my eyes. Little did I know that his words would catalyze our movement. The words fell from his lips with a thick southern twang: "This felt like heaven. I haven't been in many places where I can share my story and how I feel without being judged."

Two days later, the twelve regathered around the conference table. Over a meal we recounted the moments on that Saturday afternoon when the dean saw the gifts in the drug dealer, the factory worker heard the vulnerabilities of the foundation executive, and the graduate student and the grieving mother envisioned communal change. On that rainy afternoon, we received a glimpse of heaven on earth. On July 20, 2013, human action collided with divine intervention, and Fearless Dialogues was born.


Fearless Dialogues is a grassroots nonprofit initiative committed to creating unique spaces for unlikely partners to engage in hard heartfelt conversations that see gifts in others, hear value in stories, and work for change and positive transformation in self and other. Thinking critically about the words "fear" and "less" individually, and then as a compound word, is central to the work of Fearless Dialogues. I invite you to consider these three words now.

Fear, noun \fi(a)r\ an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

Like thin air leaking out of an airtight room, fear stifles, closes in, and isolates. Hounding us by day and harrowing by night, fear "lurks ready to spring into action as soon as one is alone, or as soon as the lights go out, or as soon as one's social defenses are temporarily removed." This pervasive fear expects conflict and roots itself in the "heart of relationships between the weak and the strong, between the controllers of the environment and those who are controlled by it." Often fear appears one-sided, as the weak are seemingly intimidated by the strong. However, an undiscussed and undisclosed fear also lingers in the hearts of many strong persons in power. They fear the possibility of being forcefully knocked from their pedestal. One debilitating result of fear is the inability to see beyond the façade of power or the visage of weakness and to glimpse the power that lies within. For meaningful connections to be forged, individuals and communities must face fear head on.

Less, det. & pronoun \les\ a smaller amount of, not as much

An antidote to fear, "lessness" is a posture of humility, perceptiveness, and intention not to lord power over others. This posture resists the temptations of possessing all the answers, and yields to the mysterious journey of raising questions. Lessness is not a diminishment of control. To the contrary, this posture requires attunement and discipline to listen first and not battle for the last word, to see a gift where others see only problems. In a dialogical landscape where news pundits shout down adversaries in their fear of losing ground or being wrong, Fearless Dialogues models another way to engage. Less is more.

Fear -less, adj \fi(a)r\ + \les\ lacking fear

I have intentionally struck through the most common definition of "fearless" because this definitions rings untrue for the work of Fearless Dialogues. In its most common usage, "fearless" is the composition of a root and a suffix ("fear" and "-less"). Here, the suffix "less" means "without." This construction connotes that hard heartfelt conversations can exist without the presence of fear. However, seldom is it the case that unlikely partners, whether self-identified by their soul gifts or not, can engage in hard heartfelt conversation with absolutely no fear.

Fear + less, adj \fi(a)r\ + \les\ compound word addressing the reality of fear and the possibility of "less-ness" to free unlikely partners to have hard heartfelt conversations.

A preferred structure for the work of convening unlikely partners is to define the word "fearless" by viewing the term as a compound word ("fear" + "less"). With a compound structure in mind, "less" means "to a smaller extent," suggesting that when fears are named, they have less of a stranglehold on hard conversations. Further, "less" evokes images of a disciplined posture of lessness between conversations partners. Thus, as a compound word, "fear+less" dialogues offers greater possibilities for unlikely partners to engage challenging subjects together.


Fearless Dialogues is unique in scope because of its value of bringing unlikely partners into common spaces for dialogue. In the first Fearless Dialogues community conversation, faculty, students, staff, and administrators from Emory University found common ground with judges, foundation executives, factory workers, elected officials, drug dealers, and physicians. Since that summer afternoon in 2013, Fearless Dialogues has gathered more than 15,000 unlikely partners for com- munity conversations in college classrooms, corporate boardrooms, church sanctuaries, and community centers. Whether working with incarcerated youth, community organizers, education professionals, or trustee boards, Fearless Dialogues emphasizes that even those who share common space with us daily may still occupy the role of Familiar Strangers. Therefore, we create conditions for unlikely partners like the judge and the felon, the rich and the poor, the old and the young to see and hear each other in new and enriching ways.


Excerpted from "Fearless Dialogues"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Gregory C. Ellison II.
Excerpted by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Parker J. Palmer, vii,
Acknowledgments, xi,
1. Fear+Less Dialogues Introduced, 1,
2. Conversations with Country Dark: Beyond the Fear of the Unknown, 15,
3. The Welcome Table of Radical Hospitality: Beyond the Fear of Strangers, 35,
4. When Pupils See: Beyond the Fear of Plopping, 65,
5. Listening for the Love Below: Beyond the Fear of Appearing Ignorant, 85,
6. To Die a Good Death: Beyond the Fear of Oppressive Systems, 119,
Notes, 153,

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