Day one – what a day!

Bright sunshine welcomed the participants blinking into the courtyard this morning. The Talk Together students then herded into St Edward’s main hall and were welcomed to the course.

Andrew Brown, whose came up with the whole idea of Talk Together and made it happen, explained the principles of the project:

  1. It is always important to keep talking, to keep learning, to keep trying to understand.
  2. Young people are the future, and they may have interesting new ideas for the future.
  3. Sharing new ideas leads to greater understanding, and perhaps a better future for everyone.

That we are not playing  a blame game was also made clear. Andrew explained Talk Together is  interested in students investigating what has happened in the past, from the perspective of everyone involved, with the aim of providing background and context.  The idea is not to judge anyone, but to find out about the situation and understand everyone’s points of view, to work out how the future can be better.

He also introduced the ideas of questioning information that is presented as ‘fact’. Just because your parents, a news programme, your friends, or the government tells you something, do you always need to believe it? Question everything, was the message.

Negotiation as a method of finding the best solution for everyone, rather than simply the mid point between two positions, was also introduced as a concept. Andrew illustrated the point with a thought experiment involving two small children and a tasty treat. If you can solve that problem, he joked, international diplomacy will be easy.

The film crew was introduced, as they silently moved around the semi circle of students with booms and cameras in hand. This morning many were feeling their skin crawl whenever a camera was pointed in their direction. By the end of the day there was a general relaxation. We’re beginning to believe the director’s assertion that soon we will all forget the crew are there. The students have also been asked to film themselves, armed with brief instructions on how to work the DVD cameras. There will be a lot of material to put in the documentary.

While the students enjoyed a tour of the site, the press lined up. The travel problems experienced by the Moroccan and Western Sahara groups have attracted a great deal of attention. After the Maghreb Arab Press visited first thing, we had a flurry of activity with BBC Radio 4, BBC Oxford and the Oxford Mail all on site over lunch. St Edward’s Hogwart’s style dining room was populated by journalists wielding microphones, notebooks and cameras. And of course the Talk Together film crew were on hand to witness the action.

The students then spontaneously decided to write an email to the students who have been unable to make it to Oxford. It was a true team effort with many students contributing their comments, and the message ‘mushed’ together into one very positive and touching email. It was signed ‘from your new friends’.

Our charismatic and charming conflict resolution expert Robert  K (Talk Together can pronounce his surname, but not spell it!) then led the group in an introductory session. Working with the participants he established ground rules for the interactions.

The students must take responsibility for turning up on time, and should turn their mobile phones off. They should practice discretion in relation to what goes on in the conference room, and respect the intimacy of that space. Students suggested that all those taking part should think twice when both listening and speaking. Many of the participants are non-native English speakers and it was suggested that misunderstandings are therefore more likely.

Someone else suggested the ‘ouch’ rule. If they find something offensive, they should raise a hand and say ‘ouch’ and then explain what was wrong. The students will also be raising their hands before they speak, to give the film crew a chance to point the booms and cameras in the right direction (a tricky task when a lively debate is happening).

Robert has plastered posters in all the meeting rooms declaring ‘Speak in a way that makes it enjoyable (failing that possible) for others to listen, and listen in a way that makes it enjoyable (failing that possible) for others to speak’. These are the kinds of attitudes that will facilitate positive dialogue during Talk Together.

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