The Dialogue Circle Method (previously known as “Diversity Circles”) was developed during the spring of 1991 by Angelo John Lewis with the support of a twelve-person planning committee at Princeton University. The method has since been used at a range of institutions that include AT&T, the American Association of University Women, Creighton University, Hoechst Celanese, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Princeton University as part of both ongoing organizational development initiatives and team-building activities.
The Back Story
Angelo John Lewis was working as a grant writer at Princeton University during the early ’90s. Being a man of color, he was frequently invited to participate on committees that had diversity issues as their main focus. He soon became frustrated with these affairs, as they seemed overly intellectual and consisted of people sharing their various theories about identity issues and not really listening to one another or using the time to make good decisions. He told a number of people at Princeton that he intended to do something about this state of affairs.
That summer, he attended a conference by an organization called the Holistic Education Association, which was a spiritual organization seeded by the Emmissaries of the Divine Light, which wished to start secular organizations and instill them with spiritual values. While there, he met David Isaacs, who introduced him to the work of David Bohm, and a physics professor from Stanford University, who like Isaacs was involved with the Emmissaries. Lewis was impressed with the faculty member because he’d started something at Stanford called The Integrity Circle and kept it going for seven years. It was an open participating gathering and people throughout the campus participated. Greatly inspired, Lewis returned to Princeton and invited a number of his friends to a meeting about diversity issues. He asked everyone present to share their reasons for attending the meeting.
Their reasons were diverse. One bearded technocrat who’d came of age in the 1960s was frustrated that he didn’t have the vocabulary to talk to his daughter who attended a private school in which African American students were “acting out”; she couldn’t understand what their issue was. Another Asian academically oriented was dealing with gender discrimination in her efforts to be accepted for her work. Yet another woman simply wanted a way to better relate to the international students she interacted with frequently.
People sharing these stories thus became the hallmark of what the group then called Diversity Tables. These open participation meetings occurred over lunch every other week for a three year period at the university. Lewis was frequently called upon to give demonstrations or practicum so of the method at other institutions.
One summer, he sent a proposal to present at the Organization Development Network, When his proposal was accepted he was required to write a paper about his work. In the course of research his work, he discovered that David Isaacs whom he’d met at the conference some years ago was one of the key theorists of dialogue. He incorporated what he considered the best elements of this and other dialogue principles and practices into his work.
Later, the work was a key component of the Diversity and Spirituality Network, a membership organization that presented experiential events at various venues. Lewis expanded the work towards non-diversity interventions, and found it could be a useful component of consulting and organization development efforts. He then renamed the method Dialogue Circles.