Sustained Dialogue Empathy Essay Contest

Congratulations to the SDCN Empathy Essay Contest Winners!

In early March, The Huffington Post is publishing winning essays from the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network Empathy Essay Contest, sponsored by the Fetzer Institute. The first day of reflections has been kicked off by Jackie Joyner-Kersee, an Olympic athlete and community builder. Her essay is the first in a series of five reflections, including four from SDCN's essay winners.

Check back at the Huffington Post daily to see each winning essay, starting with the first from Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Our Four Winning Essays

3/5/13: Read Harvard College Senior Ekene Agu's winning essay "I Think It Might Be Empathy" on the Huffington Post.

3/6/13: Read University of Virginia Professor John Alexander's essay, "A New, Completely Unfamiliar World."

3/7/13: Read Sarah Doerrer's essay, "Empathy and the Value of Living With Ambiguity."

3/8/13: Read SD Alumna Veronica Brooks' essay "Finding Common Ground" at the Huffington Post.

SDCN extends a special Thank You to our distinguished judges:

Andrew Grant-Thomas, Proteus Fund

Marjan Keypour Greenblatt

Joey Katona, Ashoka Empathy Initiative and SD alumnus

Ian Solomon, U.S. Executive Director at the World Bank

Jeremy Waletzky, Fetzer Trust


The Fetzer Institute advances love and forgiveness as powerful forces that can transform the human condition. Fetzer works to investigate, activate, and celebrate the power of love and forgiveness as a practical force for good in today’s world. They are interested in how people truly experience and understand love and forgiveness from their diverse points of view, especially from the perspective of daily work in the world.

The Sustained Dialogue Campus Network (SDCN), an initiative of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, develops everyday leaders who engage differences as strengths to improve their campuses, workplaces, and communities. Students organize in small dialogue-to-action groups of 8-12 to transform relationships and improve their communities.

Essay Prompts

“Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take other’s concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other.”  

-Hal Saunders, Founder of Sustained Dialogue, President of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue (IISD)

In each one of our lives, we encounter family, volunteer, and professional relationships involving deep differences that are often difficult to manage. When we engage in dialogue something happens, something that allows us to be transformed from hearing others’ experiences and views. As we develop a deeper understanding of what informed another person’s view, these feelings often go from anger to compassion, from hate to love, from confusion to empathy. This is the power of dialogue.

No two stories are alike.

With the support of The Fetzer Institute, we are pleased to launch the Empathy Initiative Essay Contest for participants, alumni, administrators, and friends of Sustained Dialogue. Winners in each category will receive $500, will be honored at the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network Conference (March 1-3, 2013), and will have their essays published on the Huffington Post.


As Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative states: “We need applied empathy—the ability to understand what other people are feeling and to act in response in a way that avoids harm and contributes to positive change.” Indeed, listening is understanding, and the skill of empathy is integral to listening. Assessments of Sustained Dialogue (SD) participants suggest that participating in SD contributes to skills such as active listening, civic agency, and changing campus norms. SD participation is also associated with increased empathy. While students’ empathy scores are decreasing at a national level, 91% of SD participants reported thinking critically to improve others’ experiences. They also reported a higher willingness to speak about their identity (from 78% to 96%) and engage to change group norms (from 59% to 92%). As we look to build an expectation and culture of empathy, we see that the umbrella of empathy encompasses forgiveness, compassion, and love. While dialogue has produced many instances of participants learning to forgive and demonstrating compassion through hearing other perspectives, participants do not usually frame their dialogue experiences in these terms. 

SDCN is curious about both (1) how empathy – including love, forgiveness, and compassion – contributes to dialogue, and (2) how dialogue is a conduit for forgiveness, love, and compassion.

It all comes down to this: What makes us care for or have concern for someone else – often across lines of difference – in a way that leads to better understanding and influences our actions in other contexts?

Tell us your story through one of the essay prompts below. Responses should be no more than 500 words each.

Essay 1: Given Hal Saunders’ definition of dialogue above, describe a time when you listened deeply enough to be changed by what you learned, or a time when you and another person(s) recognized each other’s valid human claims without giving up your identities. Help us understand the context, conflict or tension that led to a need for reconciliation, and how you experienced love, empathy, compassion, or forgiveness during the process.

Essay 2: Describe a time when you were able to forgive, or when you were forgiven. Include any turning points or milestones in that process. What happened before and after the moment of forgiveness? Describe how this applies to your experience in and out of dialogue.

Essay 3: Think of a conversation you have had with someone in which you deeply disagreed on the issue being discussed, and later came to empathize or understand. In the course of hearing them explain why they felt the way they did, what happened that changed? What allowed you to have a deeper understanding of their views? Talk about why this matters for you, and for your campus, workplace, or community.

The fine print:

  • Essays are due November 15, 2012 at 11:59pm EST.
  • Relatives of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue and The Fetzer Institute are not eligible to apply, but are encouraged to spread the word.
  • Essays will be judged based on: (1) Intent to convey an authentic personal story – a first person account of something you experienced or witnessed; (2) clear understanding of how the essence of dialogue (defined above) contributed to a deeper understanding; and (3) ability to answer the question(s) fully.
  • We will not accept more than one essay person.

We will accept essays and choose one $500 winner from each of the following categories:

  1. Students. Student participants, moderators, and leaders involved in Sustained Dialogue
  2. Alumni. Alumni of Sustained Dialogue programs (including campus, workplace, community, and international initiatives). These include having attended a training or workshop, or having participated in or led dialogues.
  3. Faculty, staff, and administrators. Faculty, staff, and administrators who have participated in or supported Sustained Dialogue programs (or similar initiatives such as “Listening for a Change”).
  4. Dialogue at large. Many people have experienced the power of dialogue through a sister initiative such as Intergroup Dialogue, Interfaith Youth Core, Common Ground, Public Conversations Project, Everyday Democracy, Ask Big Questions, and myriad other efforts that promote and support meaningful exchange. We encourage you to share your experiences in reaction to the essay prompts.

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