Shared Reflection, Reciprocal Communication, Collaborative Action: Exploring the Role of Dialogue in Bridging Education and Democracy

Heather Weaver, Education Specialist, Washington Campus Compact
Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington


On May 6, 2004, Washington Campus Compact, a consortium of higher education institutions dedicated to connecting education and communities, convened over 140 people from across the state of Washington to engage in dialogue about solutions for the pressing issues in education and communities today. This Dialogue for Democracy forum demonstrated how creative, intentional deliberation can build capacity for strong partnerships between campuses, schools, and community partners. This paper will explore – both in terms of ideas and strategies – how dialogue-based forums and campus-school-community partnerships are crucial elements in fostering strong connections between education and democracy.

Generating Democracy

Even as this nation was born, Jefferson recognized that it would need to be in a continual state of rebirth, saying in a 1787 letter to Abigail Adams (1959, 173): ‘The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive.’ Resistance can be broadly understood here as any collective effort on the part of citizens to reinvent their government, and it is an especially important element of a healthy democracy. This is because a democracy, more than any other system of government, is something made, not something received. Democracy requires, and is indeed defined by a process of ongoing renewal. We have an obligation always to be maintaining this process, always to be regenerating our system. Dewey saw democracy as societal in scope  ‘A democracy is more than a form of government: it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience’ (1916a, 87) and he famously identified education as the key to the process of democracy’s rebirth: ‘Democracy must be born anew in every generation and education is its midwife’ (1916b, 139). The observations of Jefferson and Dewey are hallmarks of a philosophical tradition – alive today in the thinking and practice of service learning and civic engagement that sees a necessary connection between education and democracy, and that believes that the degree to which we educate each other is the degree to which we regenerate ourselves as a people, and thereby renew our democracy.

Key questions arise from this thinking. How is the connection between education and democracy established? How is it strengthened? And what impacts can a stronger connection between education and democracy have on our campuses and in our communities? This paper focuses on the power of dialogue in order to explore answers to these questions. It will examine both the philosophy and the practice of dialogue in order to elucidate the role of dialogue in bridging education and democracy; and it will assert that it is in within the space created by dialogue that education and democracy most fruitfully converge.

David Bohm, an English scientist first known in the twentieth century for his work on quantum physics, later became interested in applying the key themes of his science (the interconnectedness of all things; and the role of change, or flow, in manifesting that interconnectedness) to the human world, and specifically to matters of human communication. This led him to a longtime exploration of dialogue as a mode of communication, through which he became a groundbreaking voice on the idea and practice of dialogue. For Bohm, the defining characteristic of dialogue was in how it created a communicative flow. He saw dialogue as quite distinct from other modes of communication such as discussion (1996, 6-7):

‘Dialogue’ comes from the Greek word, dialogos. Logos means ‘the word,’ or the ‘meaning of the word.’ And dia means ‘through’ – it doesn’t mean ‘two.’ A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. This derivation suggests a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which many emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ that holds people and societies together.Contrast this with the word ‘discussion,’ which has the same root as ‘percussion’ and ‘concussion.’ It really means to break things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view, and where everybody is presenting a different one – analyzing and breaking up. That obviously has its value, but it is limited.The people who take part are not really open to questioning their fundamental assumptions.

For a democracy to thrive, there must be a space for the ongoing exchange of new perspectives. Antjie Krog relates this process to the emergence of truth, a truth she encourages us to see as: ‘the widest possible compilation of people’s perceptions, stories, myths, and experiences’ (1999, 21-22). A wide compilation of ideas tends not to result from debates or discussions. Even though divergent views emerge during a debate, the aim of debate is to, in the end, reduce a diversity of perspectives to one winning view. The same is true of a consensus-oriented discussion which, though it promotes a wide array of ideas, still aims at moving from a diversity of ideas toward one commonly held view. Dialogue differs in principle from these modes of communication. It encourages an ongoing and open plurality of ideas. It is generative rather than reductive. And it is inherently educative and democratic.

Shaping Dialogue

With his tireless assertion that ‘American renewal is predicated on a vibrant public conversation,’ socio-political philosopher Cornel West urges us to understand and engage in the connection between dialogue and democracy (1994, 34). Expanding upon this point, philosopher of education bell hooks shows us that democratic dialogue amounts to democratic education, noting that: ‘Learning is never confined solely to an institutionalized classroom….Conversation is the central location of pedagogy for the democratic educator’ (2003, 41-44).

It was out of ideas such as these that, two years ago, Washington Campus Compact (WACC), a state consortium of higher education institutions dedicated to connecting education with communities, began developing itsDialogue for Democracy project, a project aimed at promoting the convergence of democracy and education in dialogue-based forums. The first of these was held in May 2004, and convened over 140 participants in a statewide dialogue exploring the public purpose of education.

WACC had several key goals for the Dialogue project:

  • Promote a cyclical process of shared reflection, reciprocal communication, and collaborative action between and among educational administrators, faculty, students, and community-partners;
  • Promote and convene locally-based partnerships to address education and community issues of common interest;
  • Deepen participants’ understanding of pressing issues related to Washington state communities and education;
  • Promote the development of, and commitment to, local issue-oriented action plans, and;
  • Provide opportunities for disseminating partnership work through documentary production, electronic and paper publications, and conference presentations.

These goals point to two factors that are paramount in building a vital democracy: diversity and reciprocity. Early on, WACC identified these as key priorities for this project, and created a partnership-based structure for theDialogue process that aimed at bringing diverse participants together in mutually beneficial, action-oriented partnerships. To begin with, WACC invited each of its member campuses to sponsor at least one five- to ten-person team of Dialogue participants, following parameters for the formation of teams that were meant to ensure diversity in terms of both institutions and roles, and at the same time form a solid basis for campus-school-community partnerships.

Some of these parameters capitalized on WACC’s status as a statewide, membership-based, higher education consortium. Taken together, the various teams participating in the Dialogue represented a full spectrum of higher education institutions – colleges and universities; public and private; two-, four-year, and graduate; secular and religious – from across the state of Washington. Yet, taking the goal further, WACC also requested that each team include representation from other key community institutions, including K-12 school systems, community-based organizations, and local government bodies. In addition, WACC requested that participants on each team be drawn from an array of roles and cohorts:

  • senior administrator (e.g.: president, provost, dean, school superintendent);
  • faculty (e.g.: university or college professor, community- or technical- college instructor, high-school teacher);
  • student (e.g.: graduate, undergraduate, high-school student);
  • and community partner (e.g.: non-profit director; local activist; business owner, city council member).

Taken as a whole, this structure for participation ensured the diverse representation of various localities, institutions, and individuals. (see Appendix 1)

In addition to this structure for participation, WACC took care to create a meaningful structure for the Dialogue process itself, intended to engage participants in a flow process of shared reflection, reciprocal communication, and collaborative action. This process was designed to go beyond the day of the event itself to encompass both preparatory and follow-up work. To begin with, weeks before the Dialogue, all participants were given the same set of preparatory readings and reflection questions. After having completed the readings, participants were asked to come together with their fellow team members in order to share their thoughts on the readings, and create and submit a team-based set of answers to the questions. (see Appendix 2)

This preparatory process accomplished several important things: it provided a space for acquaintance-making and group formation in advance of the event itself; it allowed all participants to engage in the same set of readings, thereby establishing the basis for common culture and language in the Dialogueprocess; and it required each team to formulate answers to questions addressing the potential of their work as a campus-school-community partnership.

In shaping the day of Dialogue itself, WACC sought to create and integrate a diversity of conversations. These ranged back and forth from general forums involving the large community of participants, to cohort-group and team-based dialogues. Participants began the day with a general forum, featuring historian and organizer Ira Harkavy speaking on the power of campus-school-community partnerships to effect creative and substantive social change. At mid-morning, participants proceeded to join with the members of their respective cohorts (administrator, faculty, student, and community partner) in facilitated dialogues to share their thoughts and questions on the connection between democracy and education, and on the prospect of their campus-school-community partnerships. During the earlier part of the afternoon, participants reconvened in a general forum, facilitated by the keynote speaker, to integrate their individual and group perspectives with those of others. Finally, participants came back together with their original teams to work in a ‘resolutions session,’ discussed further below, that allowed fellow team members to begin strategizing toward an action plan for partnership-based work. These different formats, bringing participants together in different affiliations, and going back and forth from large group to small group, allowed for a substantive flow of ideas, questions, and resolutions.

Making Change

Political scholar C. Douglas Lummis states that democracy is impossible without public hope: ‘The state of public hope is in a sense self-causing’. Public hope is itself grounds for hope. In democratic politics, the art of the possible means the art of extending the possible, the art of creating the possible out of the impossible’ (2001, 46-47). Seeking to promote this kind of robust and creative action-orientation on the part of school-campus-community partnerships, WACC gave the teams worksheet-based guidance during the final session of the Dialogue to assist them in formulating an action plan. (see Appendix 3)

The guidance asked that each plan target at least one specific community, and focus on at least one specific community issue; the guidance also provided parameters that allowed for the choice of a more goal-based planning approach, or a more open-ended approach. Encouraged to meet further following theDialogue, each team of participants had a month to develop and submit an action plan for furthering their work as a local partnership. (see Appendix 4)

With his idea of ‘communicative action’ (1979), German philosopher Jurgen Habermas revolutionized our understanding of the power of communication by positing that communication, specifically communication designed to bring about mutual understanding, was the fundamental human action. Brazilian pedagogist Paulo Freire shared this view that communication is action, that it is change: ‘To speak a true word is to transform the world. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection’ (1970, 87-88). By this reasoning, we can be said to best fulfill our humanness when our words and our deeds converge. And we can recognize powerful dialogue as the basis for transformative action.

Note – Dialogue for Democracy, a twenty-five minute documentary that captured the essence of the dialogue process discussed in this paper, is available for purchase through Washington Campus Compact. For more information, please visit


       Bohm, D. (1996). On Dialogue. London: Routledge.

       Dewey, J. (1916a, 1997). Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press.

       Dewey, J. (1916b, 1980). The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy. In The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924, ed. J. Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

        Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.

        Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the Evolution of Society.Boston: Beacon Press.

        hooks, b. (2003). Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.

        Jefferson, T. (1959). The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, ed. L. Cappon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

        Lummis, C. (2001). The Democratic Virtues. In The Last Best Hope: A Democracy Reader, ed. S. J. Goodlad, 33-48. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

        Krog, A. (1999). Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa. New York: Times Books.

        West, C. (Summer 1994). Race and Social Justice in America. Liberal Education.

About the Author

Heather Weaver is the Education Specialist at Washington Campus Compact, where she oversees the Dialogue for Democracy project, and directs a Washington Reading Corps program. Weaver formerly taught at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, WA, and at a college-preparatory school in Michigan. Her approach to education focuses on dialogue-based and experiential learning. She received degrees in English and history from Stanford University and the University of Michigan, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Education from the University of Washington. You can reach Heather at Washington Campus Compact, Western Washington University, 516 High Street, Mail Stop 5291, Bellingham, WA 98225-5996; Email, Telephone (360) 650 7263.


Campuses / communities represented:

Antioch University Seattle / Seattle
Bellevue Community College / Bellevue
Bellingham Public Schools / Bellingham
Central Washington University / Ellensburg
Eastern Washington University / Cheney/Spokane
Edmonds Community College / Edmonds
Evergreen State College / Olympia
Gonzaga University / Spokane
Heritage College / Toppenish
Seattle University / Seattle
Skagit Valley College / Mount Vernon
Spokane Community College / Spokane
Spokane Falls Community College / Spokane
University of Washington / Seattle
Washington State University / Pullman
Western Washington University / Bellingham

Sample of teams:

(university-sponsored team)
Associate Director, University Housing
Chair, Family & Consumer Sciences
Director, Civic Engagement & Leadership
School Superintendent
University President
University Student

(community-college-sponsored team)
City Mayor
Community College President
Community College Student
Faculty, Social Sciences
Manager, Center for Service-Learning


Preparatory Readings excerpted from:

        Bohm, D. (1996). On Dialogue. London: Routledge.

        Brown, G. & Harkavy, I. (1995). Making the Connection. In Service Counts: Lessons from the Field of Service and Higher Education. Providence, RI: Campus Compact/The Education Commission of the States.

        Chomsky, N. (2003). Chomsky on Democracy & Education. New York: Routledge Falmer.

        Goodlad, S. (Ed.). (2001). The Last Best Hope: A Democracy Reader.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

        hooks, b. (2003). Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.

Preparatory Questions, with sample responses:

  1. What key question(s) has your team taken from the Dialogue readings?
    Spokane Community College / Spokane team
    • What is a shared meaning between the community and the colleges, and how do we achieve this?
    • Is American society failing at democracy?
    • How can students teach others that education and democracy go hand-in-hand?
    • Why are citizens not participating?… Are we too comfortable?
  2. What key insight(s) has your team taken from the Dialogue readings?
    University of Washington / Seattle team
    We agreed that one of the most powerful articles was that written by bell hooks. In fact we decided that one of our goals for a partnership between the university and school system would be to ‘break down the walls between or at least put in skylights’ so that every graduating senior would graduate having been the recipient of an education like the one envisioned in the following statement: ‘Education at its best – this profound human transaction called teaching and learning is not just about getting information or getting a job. Education is about healing and wholeness. It is about empowerment, liberation, transcendence, about renewing the vitality of life. It is about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world.’ bell hooks
  3. What is your team’s understanding of the public purpose of education?
    Bellevue Community College / Bellevue team
    • To train skilled individuals
    • To create well rounded individuals, regardless of their area of study
    • To develop leaders
    • To create valuable members of the workforce
    • To expose students to multiple perspectives
    • To enable students to self-actualize
    • To influence students to be informed, active, and civically engaged individuals
    • To develop students’ reasoning skills
    • To make students more skilled at various forms of literacy, including media and technology literacy
    • To help people realize their potential
  4. Describe your team’s sense of the civic impact of education in your community.
    Central Washington University / Ellensburg team
    Although our educational systems make considerable contributions to the local communities, we have a sense that the civic focus is fractured by conflicting demands, as well as our current challenges with widespread coordination and collaboration.
  5. How would your team explain the nature of a partnership?
    Gonzaga University / Spokane team
    It needs to be seen as development – dynamic, and evolving as the result of the expressed voices of all involved. The needs of all partners must be equally addressed and met through collaboration.
  6. What pressing issue(s) in your community could be creatively and effectively addressed by campus-school-community partnership?
    Washington State University / Pullman team
    The most compelling and resolvable issue is the absence of a coordinated food system between the farming communities that lack access to grocery stores with low-cost, quality food products and the university community that has an abundance of food resources and human resources to help in eradicating local food insecurity.
  7. What are some outcomes your team’s partnership could possibly achieve with respect to this issue/these issues ?
    Washington State University / Pullman team
    Provide improved methods of linking food production and delivery systems through the strategic alignment of community and educational resources to better serve the low-income populations in Whitman County.
    • Improve access to high quality, locally produced food for low-income residents in Whitman County.
    • Link local production and delivery of nutritional food to job skills training and economic development.
    • Enhance community awareness and response to food systems and nutritional issues.
  8. What outcomes are you hoping to achieve through participation in theDialogue for Democracy?
    Edmonds Community College / Edmonds team
    • The team can identify some areas of common interest where the college and Native communities can work together.
    • The team can discuss ways that the college can help meet the Potlatch Fund and Native Action Network’s needs.
    • The team can identify sources of conflict and possible steps to be taken to overcome such challenges.
    • A successful partnership between cultures enhances opportunities for new resources for cutting edge work in long term social change.


Dialogue for Democracy
a statewide public forum connecting communities and education 
6 May 2004
Town Hall Seattle

Resolutions Session Guidance
for formulating commitments to furthering your work as a local partnership

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.