PUBLISHED:November 11, 2022

Community Discussion Groups aim to foster dialogue across differences


The new initiative, sponsored by the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, launched on Sept. 20 with about 100 students, faculty, and staff participating.

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The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee has launched a new initiative for members of the Duke Law School community designed to open up lines of communication, encourage honest conversations on sensitive topics, and foster dialogue across differences.

The Community Discussion Groups initiative launched on Sept. 20 with about 100 students, faculty, and staff participating. The 14 groups have since begun meeting for conversations on a different topic each month, starting with “building community.” Subsequent meetings will focus on belonging, the roots of polarization, humanity in disagreement, and connection across divides. The committee is providing prompts and discussion guides to facilitate the meetings and also reimbursing food and drink expenses for the groups, which will continue to meet throughout the 2022-23 academic year.

Professor Barak D. Richman, who chairs the DEI Committee, said the initiative aims to strengthen the social fabric of the Law School while enabling all members of the community to feel welcome discussing issues related to their identity.  

“I think all of us are still recovering from the pandemic and the isolation that it brought,” Richman said. “We really are a very different community than we were before, just in terms of size and composition, and we want to recover the cohesiveness that we had before. This is a way of building relationships that cut across faculty, staff, and students.”

Richman said the groups were intentionally organized to be as heterogeneous as possible and include a mix of backgrounds, class years, and roles within the community, such as faculty or staff position. 

In their discussions, participants have been asked to adhere to eight principles: authenticity, kindness, listening, respect, difference without disagreement/disagreement without argument, making room for all voices, trust and confidentiality, and not identifying subjects of shared stories. 

“It’s important to construct these discussion groups with people that you don't normally have conversations with,” Richman said. “And I can say from my own experience, from the first conversation, that deliberate heterogeneity was really meaningful.

“My sense is that there's a lot of enthusiasm from those who signed up for the opportunity to have periodic conversations with people whom they don't normally encounter.”

Jyren Dillard, a member of the Academic Services staff, said she hopes the small-group setting will enable her to build closer relationships with faculty and students than her job allows.

“I’m always corresponding with professors and other faculty members, but never on a personal level,” Dillard said. “If I do interact with students it’s via email.”

Dillard, who joined the Law School staff in June and works remotely three days a week, said she welcomed the opportunity to meet in person and even brought cookies to her group’s first monthly meeting. The conversation focused on participants’ experiences in the Duke Law community and how to better understand each other and be more inclusive.

“Being connected in a Community Discussion Group has strengthened my knowledge of people’s perspectives and helped me grow more as a person,” she said. “I feel like it would be beneficial if we were all in Community Discussion Groups. It’s a positive thing here.”

Sahdia Khan ’23 said she values the opportunity to make connections in an authentic way. Growing up in a predominantly white suburb in Kansas, she once thought building community required her to blend in by concealing what made her different. As an adult, she realizes “it doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

“We all yearn for community, but as a minority it can feel like an uphill battle to get there,” the 3L said.

“The Community Discussion Groups were a way for me to build ties but also highlight the things about me that make me different.”

Khan said she was pleased at how easily her group connected at its first meeting, with participants interacting informally and sharing personal perspectives on sensitive topics.

“One of the most surprising, most valuable parts of my experience with the group so far is just being able to interact with people who are all part of this community but not in the same way that I am,” she said.

“I do think that we have a lot of room for improvement, not just at Duke, but in the legal profession in general. Having these conversations about the importance of having a diverse and equitable and inclusive environment in school will translate when we as students get into the workspace.”

Richman said it was important that the groups were voluntary and building community “from the bottom up.”

“I think there is an emotional intuition that post-Covid social isolation isn't going to be overcome by rules from above,” he said.

“We say difference is celebrated in an official sense. But that’s different from feeling comfortable expressing your individual identity and comfortable engaging with people with other identities. It's that degree of comfort that we're really shooting for.”


Andrew Park is associate dean, communications, marketing, and events at Duke Law. Reach him at