Community Thought Leaders: Karen Ramirez and Manuela Stewart Sifuentes

The CU Boulder Dialogues Program is as much about advancing diversity and inclusivity on campus and in our community, as it is about creating a sense of belonging in classrooms and other spaces.

“When we use the term ‘dialogue,’ we mean a form of communication where people come together to share perspectives, experiences, values, and beliefs in order to deepen understanding of each other and ourselves through listening and sharing,” says Karen Ramirez, Director of the CU Dialogues Program and Assistant Director of the Miramontes Arts and Sciences Program (MASP) at CU Boulder. MASP serves underrepresented student in the College of Arts and Sciences. 
“Dialogue is very different from a debate or a panel presentation by a set of ‘experts,’” she continues. “Dialogue is not about discovering truth or reaching consensus or convincing someone else of your position. 
“The goal of dialogue is mutual understanding. That is, the idea of reaching for understanding through sharing and responding. However, mutual understanding does not necessarily reach a point of finality or agreement. It’s an interactive process that is ongoing … and that really emphasizes listening.” 
Indeed, the CU Dialogues Program offers both a mechanism to talk about – and begin to act upon – community concerns through dialogue and technical assistance, and helps CU faculty integrate this pedagogy in their classes. Recent dialogue classes and relevant topics include:
  • Leadership 1000: transformative leadership
  • Creative Writing: how we discuss/write about “difficult” subjects
  • Gender, Sexuality and Pop Culture: intersectionality
  • Biomedical Ethics: experiences with the medical field and bio-medical advancements
  • Geography: statistics in everyday life
Last year, some 1,215 students were impacted through classroom dialogues.
“In larger classes, we break up into smaller dialogue groups, giving students a chance to interact more intimately,” says Karen, who has completed dialogue training through Essential Partners, the Kettering Foundation, and the National Intergroup Dialogue Institute. Her literary publications consider how narrative mappings of place in 19th- and 20th-century western American literature dialogically intersect with contemporary public memory of western places. She has drawn on her foundation in dialogism and narrative study to develop, theorize, and study dialogue experiences as a form of engaged learning about cross-cultural perspectives. 
“We work to advance dialogue as a pedagogy,” she further explains. “It’s not just something that happens when the CU Dialogues Program comes into a classroom – it’s also as a mindset that faculty bring to their teaching.  
“Dialogic pedagogy invites dialogue as a discourse for learning. It promotes the exchange of experiences and ideas between instructor and students, as well as among students. This is a learning environment where the instructor is a guide toward developing knowledge, rather than the sole conveyor of knowledge.” 
According to Karen, the program also advances depolarization by providing opportunities for participants to not only share their ideas and perspectives, but to learn why people think and feel as they do. “We often hear from faculty that students who speak up in dialogue have never talked in class before. 
“So often, CU students, faculty, staff – as well as broader Boulder community members – don’t talk about complex issues such as race or ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, immigrant integration, incarceration, or local issues like housing affordability. And if people do talk about these issues, they most often talk amongst a group of like-minded people. 
“The CU Dialogues Program believes that a critical first step for residents to understand and address complex issues within our community is to talk about them … and to truly listen to diverse voices and perspectives.” 
Agrees Manuela Stewart Sifuentes, Director of Community Partnerships at CU Engage, where the Dialogues Program is located: “The thing I appreciate most about the CU Dialogues program is that the facilitators clearly and explicitly state they are not the experts. This really helps participants see themselves as welcome – and their contributions not only welcomed and appreciated, but needed.”
CU Engage collaborates with communities, schools, and organizations to address complex public challenges. How? By facilitating development of equity-oriented partnerships that sustain engaged learning and mutually beneficial community-based research.
Manuela continues, “I have been an interpreter for some CU Dialogues that bring in participants who are monolingual Spanish-speakers. Some of those dialogues are in classrooms and some are among staff. The Spanish-speaking participants have shared how valuable it is to feel seen and heard, and that the CU Dialogues Program contributes to that.”
A Leadership Fellows alumna who’s also a committee member of the Community Foundation’s BRAVO Fund to improve opportunities and quality of life for local Latinos, Manuela is working to bring Dialogues to off-campus, community settings. Specifically, via an outreach grant, she’s working with Karen to hold dialogues at two Boulder manufactured home parks.
Concludes Karen, who’s also a recipient of the 2018 Boulder Faculty Assembly Award for Leadership and Service, among several other awards in teaching excellence and activism: “In designing and facilitating dialogue, we bring forward attention to power differentials and inequities. 
“We want to provide an opportunity for everyone to speak and share in a dialogue, but we are mindful that people bring their privilege to the dialogue. We want to make sure that voices and ideas that don’t get much ‘air time’ in other spaces are able to be heard in dialogue.” 


Teaching Professor Dr. Karen Ramirez, center, facilitates a dialogue on campus.

Teaching Professor Dr. Karen Ramirez, center, facilitates a dialogue on campus.