Courageous Conversations is a series of campus-wide discussions at Princeton Theological Seminary centered around the topics of racism, gender inequalities, issues of oppression and power, and stereotypes. Victor Aloyo, MDiv ’89, associate dean for institutional diversity and community engagement, and director of multicultural relations, pioneered the concept at the Seminary.
Aloyo imagined a campus community where students and colleagues could move beyond tolerating one another to achieving better understanding and an empathetic ear to one another’s stories. Although such topics are often uncomfortable for many, the Seminary realized the potential for this type of community engagement to be life giving if facilitated with wisdom and integrity. Now, nine years later, Aloyo is eager to take the program to the next level.
“It’s so rewarding to see how Courageous Conversations has grown,” says Aloyo. In recent years there were close to 200 students and colleagues engaged in discussions—the largest level of participation since the program’s inception, he says.
One factor of the program’s success can be attributed to the mix of participation by students, faculty, staff, and administrators. The variety of ages, ethnicities, nationalities, lifestyles, genders, economic levels, and Christian traditions represented in any given conversation has resulted in rich dialogue.
Aloyo acknowledges there is an inherent tension rooted in the conversations when you have such a diverse group conversing around what are often highly charged issues. The potential for strain is exacerbated when participants are contemplating or acknowledging their personal experiences or misconceptions for the first time. However, it is the reconciliation of that tension that aids in students’ Christian formation.
“We engage one another in groups and face to face, sometimes this is uncomfortable. Courageous conversations come with risk,” says Lisa Sullivan, MDiv ’19. “We bring ourselves to the conversations, flaws and all. In expectation, our hope is to listen and hear one another, to understand one another, to learn, and to be heard.”
Through such transparent discussions, students and colleagues alike become equipped to comprehend the world around them as they may encounter and be called to address similar issues while serving in ministry.
“The courage and strength needed to continue the academic and spiritual journey was sometimes found in the person sitting across from us whom we hardly knew until they shared their story. Their courage becomes our own; together we find compassion, empathy, and our voices,” says Sullivan. “These conversations model back to us that our shared experiences and stories exist not in isolation but are joined to the much larger story of God on the move, the God of covenant community.”
“We need to understand that each one of us has been influenced by our culture and that those influences have an impact on our ability to interpret Scripture, develop relationships, and engage with others,” says Aloyo.
As Aloyo looks to the future for Courageous Conversations, he is considering how the program can make an even bigger impact. “Beyond the goal of helping our community master the art of conversation, which is a skill that is diminishing in our society, there is the desire to launch service learning initiatives as a logical outgrowth of discussions,” he adds.
Members of the Courageous Conversations committee have developed a guidebook based on the success of the program at the Seminary. Aloyo hopes that the model established here can help other institutions as they attempt to address similar critical issues. The guidebook has been shared with regional institutions in Central New Jersey and Presbyteries in New York and South Carolina. Further collaboration with organizations beyond the Seminary’s campus community is the long-term vision for the program.
Requests for the guidebook should be directed to the Office of Multicultural Relations at firstname.lastname@example.org.