Discern + Digest: Thinking Before Answering

November 4, 2019 | By Grace Rector

“Do you take your privilege and use it to the best of your ability and/or do you use your privilege to make way for others?” That was the question one of our fellows, Sheila Herrling, presented to me and the other Beeck Center student analysts for our weekly Discern + Digest conversation. As we sat around the table trying to unpack what privilege means and whether it is demeaning to use your privilege to give voice to another person with a less privileged background, we talked about representation in politics and whether someone should or can truly support a specific population without sharing their identity. We discussed these implications within the social impact space when organizing projects and how to support a community without claiming authority. Taking the space to ask what is on my mind and really struggle with questions is one of the ways the Center fully engages students and provides tools of learning beyond just a job.

History

Historically, the Beeck Center hosted weekly Brown Bag discussions in which a speaker from the social impact space came to speak to the student analysts about their experiences and to share their expertise. These lunches were very informative to students including myself, but it could be very one-sided; the knowledge resided alone in the mind of the guest speaker while the students asked questions about how to get the job that the guest held.

Our current Interim Executive Director, Nate Wong, and the Director of Student Engagement, Matthew Fortier identified this issue and desired to use this time every week to hold a more impactful conversation rather than coffee chat. I was grateful to be invited into their brainstorming process, and together we created the Discern + Digest program. The goal was to create a brave space for student analysts in which they could ask questions that they are struggling with within the social impact arena and use their peers’ experiences to digest these questions more fully, serve the needs of the student analysts and allow them to develop as individuals. 

The Beginning

In Spring 2019, we launched the Discern + Digest Series to the Beeck Center student analysts as well as a group of external undergraduate and graduate Georgetown students interested in social impact. We kicked off the series by gathering together as a community to list all possible questions that students have encountered or struggled with during their interactions with social impact in order to see where the interests of the group lay. Another important step we took as a group before beginning the discussions was establishing group rules; we established that Discern + Digest is a space where students can feel confident sharing difficult stories or experiences, where every experience is valuable, and where one can question the idea, not the person. These ground rules are important to set in order for a vulnerable and meaningful conversation to take place.

Student holding sign of ground rules for discussion

For our first official discussion, Nate shared his experience from his time in Mozambique that prompted the question, “Whose role is it to align perception in reality?” He shared his story for 15 minutes, then we opened the discussion up to the students. Students discussed race, privilege, allyship, and more in the mere 50 minutes that we had together, but it was so powerful to see the students sharing their experiences and asking why certain structures exist in society. Other questions we discussed throughout the semester included:

  1. Is international development driven by nonprofits’ wants or the community’s needs?
  2. How do you stay rooted while trying to change the system?
  3. How to move beyond diversity and create inclusive spaces?
  4. How to serve yourself to better serve others?

Feedback

These weekly discussions became the highlight of my week because I looked forward to learning from my peers and because I felt comfortable sharing my thoughts and concerns in that space. I devoted my time at the Beeck Center during this semester to the development and flourishment of Discern + Digest and I was overwhelmed by the positive feedback we received from participants. One student reflected on the series:

“I loved the questions that we never seemed to unravel, especially ones that spoke of diversity and inclusivity. Feeling unresolved at the end, with more questions than answers, was a mark of success for me throughout the series.” (Anonymous participant)

Students around table

This comment was a mark of success for me too because this student walked away feeling comfortable with the many questions they gained during the experience. I often find at Georgetown that we value knowledge over curiosity, and while both are important, I feel the curiosity is lacking, and it makes me happy to know such a space exists for students thanks to the Beeck Center. Another student shared, “this concept should be part of every GU program!” This comment is very reassuring and makes me feel the Center has created a space for students to feel supported. 

Other important results we gathered include the fact that 91% of participants felt that “By digging beneath the surface, I’ve uncovered questions that I hope to continue exploring.”

This means the experience added something to the participants’ lives, and lit a spark from which the students will continue to explore. Additionally, 72% of participants who answered the survey agreed or strongly agreed that “the discussions have deepened my understanding of the social impact space.” 

While the goal of this space is to create curious and innovative 21st-century thinkers, it also aims to educate students about social impact and its role in modern society.

Personal Impact

Not only do I hope the Discern + Digest series impacted the student analysts and outside students, but I know that facilitating and organizing this project has significantly affected me. Nate helped me obtain the tools necessary to be a great facilitator who listens and moves the conversation based on the flow of the group. I met with the guest speakers before they would come in to formulate a question encompassing the topics we wanted to address and ensure that the conversation was accessible to all students. I learned how to be a good facilitator and obtained so many new questions that I continue to ask myself regularly including, “how to serve yourself to better serve others.” 

Through my experience in Discern + Digest, I came to love listening to the stories and experiences of others; I found it fascinating how one’s experiences can impact the way one interacts with everything else in their life. Accordingly, I was grateful to serve as the storytelling intern for Women for Women International this summer (2019) through the Beeck Center’s GU Impacts program. I worked with the young women beneficiaries of the organization to listen to their stories and to share it with Women for Women’s networks. I felt prepared in my work because I had learned so much about interpersonal skills and listening skills during my time facilitating the Discern + Digest series. 

This fall, I am studying comparative education and social change in Chile and Argentina, and I was looking for a space in which I could find something similar to the community I had at the Beeck Center. I found the American Space, co-funded by the U.S. Embassy and the National Institute of Chile, in which they have regular conversations for Chileans and anyone else who wants to join about cultural issues such as women’s rights or the local job market. I plan to get involved by facilitating a conversation on the comparative role of women in Chile and the United States, and I am grateful to the Discern + Digest series for awakening curiosity within me and for giving me the bravery to seek out innovative spaces outside of the Beeck Center.

How YOU can get involved

The Discern + Digest series has proven to be an innovative and supportive space for students at Georgetown University, but I strongly believe that curiosity and dialogue is scarce everywhere in our country: in universities, workplaces, the government, and more. Accordingly, if you are involved in an organization where you  feel that you could benefit from regular discussions about questions related to social impact and social justice, I implore you to create your own Discern + Digest Series according to the following steps:

Step 1: Goal setting for the discussion series

  1. What is the purpose of creating this space?
  2. How is it different from pre-existing discussion spaces?

Step 2: Identify a facilitator

  1. Who will best ensure the aforementioned goals of this series?
  2. Who has the time to dedicate to ensuring the discussions are well organized and well thought out?
  3. Who has excellent people skills and can articulate the goals and objectives of the series?

Step 3: Identify participants

  1. What students would most benefit from this experience?
  2. How many students should be included in the discussion?
  3. How diverse should the group be in regards to experiences and backgrounds?

Step 4: Establish ground rules

  1. What are the necessary rules to ensure a safe and brave space for participants?
  2. Are these rules agreed upon by every participant?

Step 5: Select guest speakers and work with them to create interesting questions

  1. Who would bring a unique perspective on the question they want to share?
  2. Will the guest speaker be a facilitator in the discussion rather than dominate the conversation?
  3. Is the question dynamic and engaging for a wide array of people?

Step 6: Enjoy and learn!

  1. Open your ears and hearts and take advantage of this opportunity to learn from the experiences of the diverse group in the room.
  2. Find ways to incorporate the goals of this space into daily life so that the impact is sustainable.

Group sitting around a table

If you’re interested in learning more about the Beeck Center’s Discern + Digest series, or participating in one of our sessions, please contact Matt Fortier, Director of Student Engagement.

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Grace Rector is a Junior in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, studying Culture and Politics with a concentration in global education and a minor in Education, Inquiry, and Justice. Connect with her via email at gr455@georgetown.edu or follow her blog globalgracegazette.wordpress.com.

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