The Rev. Debra Pallatto-Fontaine, Ph.D., works daily with students — teaching, leading, guiding, talking and listening.
Yet she still wonders: How do we know the pulse of our students? What are they thinking and how can get them to talk about it?
She’s eager for an Oct. 26 symposium at Becker College’s Leicester Campus, “Can We Talk? Dialoguing Through Difference.” And the timing of the event is fortuitous, too, coming mere days before the 2016 general election.
Speakers at the symposium bring different experiences but they all have the experience of difficult conversations, prickly topics — and working through those ideas while still staying friends. Participants are:
- Shared Hosein, a retired U.S. Army Reserves lieutenant colonel and community chaplain at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
- Yehezkel Landau, a dual Israeli-American citizen, an interfaith educator and consultant active in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations and Israeli-Palestinian peace building for more than 35 years.
- Margaret Keyser, a native of South Africa, where she was a student leader in the anti-apartheid movement. She’s now an independent conflict transformation consultant, and former executive director of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice.
- Karen Nell Smith, a conflict management consultant for 35 years, and a pastor of the Congregational Church of Christ. She’s a founding member of the Brookfield Institute, where she is director of the Interfaith Engagement program.
The panel will talk about constructive dialogue, deep and active listening and the skills needed to engage in conversations that lead to greater understanding, peace and stronger relationships.
That’s part of what excites Rev. Pallatto-Fontaine the most. She sees global citizens daily — her students regularly travel the world as part of their learning — and she sees how frustrated they can get with others who might have a narrower worldview. Pallatto-Fontaine is executive director for Global Initiatives at Becker College’s Center for Global Citizenship and coordinates the Women’s Emergent Leadership Institute. She has taught education, religion (she’s ordained in the United Church of Christ) and humanities. And she regularly volunteers with Global Ministries in Asia, Africa and Central America, teaching Bible studies and English classes for adults and volunteers in Haiti as part of a partnership with the Be Like Brit Orphanage in Grand Goave, where she often takes student groups. Those students continue to follow in her footsteps — and beyond. They have regular outreach programs with people in communities around Becker College, including Refugee Artisans of Worcester, which identifies refugee artisans and assist them to self-sufficiency through the sale of art while archiving their cultural crafts.
But sometimes the dialogue and listening skills are lacking, no matter what age group you’re talking about, and Pallatto-Fontaine is hoping the Oct. 26 symposium will give her students “take-away skills” to put into practice during their outreach as well as in everyday life. She wants them to be willing to listen, to not rush to judgment and to find out where others are coming from, a skill that is crucially important this election year.
“They need to know, 'I can listen and I need to tell you I don’t agree. I respect you as a person, but here’s what I feel,’” Pallatto-Fontaine says. She finds the current generation very accepting of race, gender and social differences, but frustrated by political differences.