Aesthetics of Doing: Learning as Social Empowerment
Kemi Ilesanmi, Executive Director of The Laundromat Project

Pepón Osorio, artist & Laura Carnell Professor of Community Art, Tyler School of Art at Temple University, Philadephia

George Emilio Sánchez, performance artist, writer & educator


How can dialogic teaching and learning be used as a strategy for social engagement?

This learning process, originally developed by Paulo Freire, empowers people by giving them a forum for sharing their existing knowledge. It equalizes the teacher-student relationship by building education and problem-solving on a foundation of community-based practical understanding, raising awareness of social justice and other issues facing communities. Socially engaged art is rooted in communication and interaction, ideally creating experiences that bring people together to enact social change. How do methods of learning that foster dialogue influence the way socially engaged artists develop their practice? This panel will bring together artists and educators who create artistic projects that use tools of participatory learning and audience empowerment to foster social engagement.

Aesthetics of Doing is a series of panel discussions that bring together artists, scholars, administrators and other members of the art community for discussions that critically address socially engaged art as it is practiced and defined.


George Emilio Sánchez: “Dialogic process is confirmation and affirmation of who we are at that moment. […] It’s not a path – it’s the thinking we need to get to.”

Kemi Ilesanmi talks about social bridging and creative capital in relation to dialogic process.

Q&A with the audience discusses dialogic technique in relation to power. Who is empowering who and who has agency?





These are large, messy words. But despite their ambiguities, when they intersect and interact, flames of power ignite. This power is what public art desires: to connect people—in words and in action—to something larger than themselves. This is the transformative power of art in the public realm, when individuals, despite societal divisions, connect and assert voice through art. In these moments, we are seduced into thinking that all public art catalyzes social interaction and discourse. But these moments materialize through an often quiet and slow process: meetings gathering disparate groups and individuals; facilitated discussions; and many phone calls and emails. This back-of-the-house work—marshalling people, resources, and details—may appear unrelated to art, but engaging with the public, especially since the public is not a fixed entity, is an art. While it is understood that no one artwork stands for “art,” and no one conversation defines “dialogue,” “public” is often perceived as a monolithic entity.”


Making Dialogue Effective, published by The Dialogue Society, London, 2013

Skills in Dialogue: Cultivating Listening and Empathy Part 2

“Facilitators also need the skills to manage the process through a series of balancing acts. Facilitators need to balance safety and free expression.” (p.22)

“Dialogue cannot be fully planned and controlled; it is a journey of discovery.” (Jill Adam) (p.22)


Organising and facilitating dialogue (p.33)

Bringing people into the dialogue space. Who? And how?

1 . Remember that dialogue can take many forms, from tense but crucial conversations in conflict situations, to community discussions over dinner, to intercultural football tournaments. Diverse kinds of dialogue can be valuable in different contexts and among different groups.

2 . Take time to build trust and self-confidence before taking on the more difficult encounters and conversations.

3 . Make efforts to reach people who would not usually be interested in dialogue, considering what kind of projects would appeal to them. Once involved, these people may find dialogue really beneficial.

4 . Dialogue can be about anything, and with anyone. Keep an open mind about topics and be prepared to step outside your comfort zone.

5 . Involve different people by being creative and innovative, and experimenting with new formats. Different structures for conversation will appeal to different people. Further, some people might be uninspired by traditional discussion forums but keen to engage with different groups in joint social action, or interfaith or intercultural sports events.

6 . Be aware of the assumptions, misconceptions and suspicions people may have about dialogue. Some people assume that ‘interfaith dialogue’ will involve theological discussions with which they would not be comfortable. Others may be very wary of the motivations of dialogue organisers, suspecting a hidden intention to persuade or convert.

7. It may be worth stating in publicity materials that all participation is voluntary, and nobody will be pressurised to participate more than they wish to.

8 . Try not to get downhearted if a seemingly promising project does not attract your target audience. Put it down to experience and try a new approach. People have busy lives and competing priorities, but with enough time and creativity you will gradually reach new groups. Be persistent, be flexible, and stay positive.

9 . Improve the reach of your dialogue through an ongoing process of research, project delivery and careful evaluation.

10. Record the basic details of your dialogue participants and analyse them. Who is coming? Who is coming back? Which groups are you failing to reach, and why?

11. Persevere. It takes time and persistence to gain the trust of potential participants so that they feel ready to engage, especially where there is a long history of animosity and conflict.

12. As you try to gain trust and build relationships be transparent, and suspend judgement.

13. Get to know the influencers of harder-to-reach groups to help you to better understand the groups and to build trust.

14. Take the initiative to knock on the door of ‘fringe groups’; you might be among the first to do so, and it might be appreciated.

15. Ensure you do your homework on the groups or individuals you plan to invite to the dialogue. Ensure the group that you invite is a group that you can manage successfully in the context of this particular dialogue. Be aware of any tensions between particular people and make sure you are equipped to manage them.

16. Remember that intrafaith dialogue is as important as interfaith dialogue, and often more difficult.

17. It is important not to sideline the ‘hardline’ groups within your own religious, cultural or political tradition; doing so marginalises them further and takes us further from really inclusive dialogue.

18. Make efforts to engage with uninterested and even hostile groups; including them, hard as it is, will often be the only way to a sustainably peaceful society.

19. Sometimes it is helpful to take advantage of a captive audience. By running a project in a school, a dialogue organisation can reach even those who would generally be uninterested in dialogue as they are obliged to be in school.

Creating the right environment

20. Be hospitable and welcoming. Try to create warm, caring spaces and atmospheres where participants feel relaxed and encouraged to engage at a genuine, human level.

21. Try to make your venue a warm, comfortable and pleasant environment. Ensure, as a bare minimum, that it is clean, tidy and at a comfortable temperature.

22. Promote a sense of equality in the dialogue by holding it in a neutral location.

23. Pay attention to equality of representation; if one group in a dialogue is considerably smaller, or at a clear disadvantage in terms of education or experience, they may feel uncomfortable.

24. Try to achieve a balance in terms of gender, culture, religion, age, social group etc.

25. Use simple ‘ice-breaker’ games and activities to help participants feel at ease and to warm people up, encouraging participation.

26. It will often be helpful to begin a dialogue session by introducing and seeking agreement on some basic ground rules. You may want to offer some advice on listening skills and helpful attitudes for dialogue (see ‘Participating in Dialogue’ section below).

27. Be aware that it can often be counterproductive to put pressure on the process of dialogue by being too prescriptive and rigid about what it should achieve. Dialogue is an unpredictable process of human interaction and tends to benefit from space to develop organically.

28. This does not mean that you do not need any sense of purpose, only that it is frequently beneficial to keep the aim broad or flexible. The planning and management of your event will need to be guided by some kind of goal, even if it is as broad and open as ‘maximise opportunities for natural, relaxed dialogue’. In certain contexts, and to appeal to certain participants, more specific aims may need to be stated.

29. In situations of conflict there will need to be particular clarity about the purpose and process of the gathering; people will need to know exactly what to expect before engaging.

30. Ensure physical safety.

31. Minimise time pressure.

32. Food can be a good ice-breaker, get people talking and encourage natural human interaction.

33. Where possible, intersperse formal dialogue sessions with other activities. A lot of valuable interaction can happen during recreational trips or activities, over food, or even on the bus between venues.

Techniques/approaches to try

34. Remember that silence can be an effective vehicle for dialogue.

35. Use personal narrative (asking people to tell their own stories) as a way of generating empathy.

36. Challenge preconceptions by inviting participants to tell the stories that they have about others (‘narrative mediation’ – John Winslade and Gerald Monk15) .

37. A ‘talking object’ can be a helpful tool to ensure that everybody has the chance to speak without being interrupted. Only the person holding the object (for example, a stone or teddy) is allowed to speak. The object can be passed around a circle of people.

38. Remember the value of people coming together just to have some fun (for example, telling entertaining stories or having a party).

39. Work with what you have. In conflict situations, where any form of dialogue is profoundly challenging, facilitators have to take advantage of any willingness to engage. Low-level, indirect communication through a facilitator is a start worth making where face-to face engagement is not possible.

40. In intrafaith dialogue, engaging at the level of scripture can be helpful; even a ‘hardline’ group hostile to dialogue may engage when you appeal to a source whose authority they accept.

Tips for good facilitation

41. Accept people’s inevitably varied motives for coming to a dialogue event, and work with them.

42. As a facilitator, model the behaviour and attitudes you hope to see in the group (for instance, calm, respectful engagement and curiosity about others.)

43. Encourage engagement at a personal, informal level.

44. Be aware of the sensitivities of participants and navigate these gently and tactfully.

45. Gently try to draw the more reticent participants into the conversation.

46. Do not put too much pressure on people to participate in ways that they are not comfortable with. Some people may want to attend, listen and learn the first time they attend, without speaking. They may have the confidence to speak next time.

47. Balance safety and freedom of expression; destructive emotional outbursts need to be controlled, but sometimes genuine dialogue can happen in loud voices and heated exchanges.

48. Balance careful attention to the management of the process of dialogue and surrender to the mystery of it.

49. Be aware of the all-pervasive human reality of inequality. As well as inequalities of power, social status and levels of education, facilitators should bear in mind that people have unequal opportunities to develop qualities and skills for dialogue as they grow up.

50. There are power relations even between the facilitator and the group. As a facilitator, try to minimise the hierarchical nature of the relationship. Make yourself, as far as possible, part of the group, and allow the group to participate actively and contribute to decisions.

Keeping dialogue going, and growing

Within your own organisation/group

51. Draw on inspirational individuals and stories to generate enthusiasm and motivation for the work involved in dialogue.

52. Do not underestimate what can be achieved by people willing to offer volunteer time and resources, even in tough economic times.

53. In community-building dialogue, be positive and proactive rather than reactive. Set your own agenda. This will make dialogue more long-lasting and more inspiring.

54. When taking on new projects, choose initiatives that will be valuable in the short term but can also develop and be sustainable in the long term.

55. The outcomes of dialogue are hard to measure. However, it is worth making efforts to evaluate your projects. Find out about the value and impact of your dialogue through questionnaires asking pertinent questions about people’s experience of a project or event. Asking people to fill in questionnaires before and after the project can help you see whether it met expectations and whether it changed attitudes. Follow-up surveys may shed light on longer-term impact.

56. Consider efficiency when deciding which projects to undertake. Consider how many people you are likely to reach, and whether your project will be conducive to in-depth or more superficial interactions. Ask yourself whether you might facilitate dialogue on the same sort of scale, and in the same kind of depth, more quickly and easily by adopting a different approach.

57. Ask yourself the right questions about proposed new projects. What kind of dialogue are you hoping to facilitate, and is your proposed method appropriate? Will it appeal to the people you hope to involve? Are you the organisation best placed to carry out this kind of project, or would you do better to concentrate efforts elsewhere?

58. Remember your aim, however broadly defined, while deciding on the details of your project.

59. Do not take on more than you can manage. If considering a big, challenging project, consider whether it would be worth doing something on a smaller scale first and building from there.

60. Theory must develop in practice.

Looking beyond your own organisation/group

61. Try to work in partnership even in the process of organising a dialogue project; in this way, the whole process becomes a form of dialogue.

62. Make spaces in which dialogue can grow. Dialogue charities and groups create important spaces, but spaces for discussion and exchange between organisations are also crucial.

63. Boost motivation and energy for dialogue by encouraging a sense of shared vision across different organisations. This can be achieved through bilateral meetings, larger gatherings and collaboration on different scales. Participating in dialogue (spontaneous or organised)

64. Take the initiative. Knock on the neighbour’s door.

65. Don’t let prejudice have the last word. One person’s brave decision to put past experiences behind him and engage positively with the ‘other’ can be totally transformative.

66. Take opportunities to address ignorance. Prejudice is frequently based on ignorance. Sometimes when faulty beliefs are challenged the foundations of prejudice are shaken.

67. Find the motivation to persevere despite the inevitable difficulties of dialogue. For some this motivation might come from a deep sense of interdependence (ubuntu)16, or from awareness that immense global challenges will only be solved through dialogue and collaboration.

68. Be curious. Curiosity about others drives out fear and animosity and can bring about a fruitful process of discovery.

69. Be willing to answer questions about your beliefs and viewpoints.

70. If somebody addresses you in a negative or disrespectful way, try not to respond in the same manner. Try to use it as an opportunity to explain your perspective further or more clearly, turning the situation into something positive.

71. Be ready to challenge assumptions, others’ and your own. This is difficult and requires resilience.

72. Listen to others with empathy, using imagination to try to understand their perspectives and feelings. Step outside the bubble of your own concerns and try to see others as people in their own right.

73. When attending organised dialogue, try to do a little research about the topic of dialogue and the group. This will give you background knowledge and perhaps more confidence and more to contribute.

74. Be aware of the messages you send by body language and clothing even before you speak. Ensure that your body language does not send out negative signals or contradict what you are saying.

75. Remember that dialogue is not debate or discussion. It is not about winning an argument or proving a point, and it need not end in consensus. Participants should not try to persuade or convert. Dialogue is about listening to one another and growing in mutual understanding.

76. Make a conscious effort to be fully present, avoiding distractions.

77. Try to focus on what the other person can teach you, rather than on how you are going to respond.

78. Respect other participants; if nothing else, they have had the courage to engage.

79. Do not force your viewpoint on others and try not to get defensive. Respect the fact that others will have different perspectives and views and be ready to agree to disagree.

80. Be respectful and considerate. Think about the impact of how you say something. Be aware of the context and the connotations that certain words or phrases may have. Try to avoid putting things in ways that will cause offence or hurt. Being truthful does not require being brutal.

81. The way you behave and how you treat others may say more than your actual words. Try to have a positive effect on the quality of the dialogue by setting an example of respectful engagement and listening.


Voices of the Bullring Market, TLANG (2015)

“Language barrier can be a struggle”

“You can get the personal touch [in a market] that you can’t get in a supermarket.”

“The language is not that important for us. Understanding is more important.”

“What people need is to talk, touch and relate. You take that away and we’ve lost everything.”