Public scholar Ellison shares his journey in 'Fearless Dialogues'
By Elaine Justice | Nov. 2, 2017
Emory University’s Gregory Ellison isn’t taking a conventional road to life as a public scholar. What began as a call to action on a local Atlanta radio station four years ago has grown into grassroots organization and global movement. Ellison shares that journey in his latest book, “Fearless Dialogues: A New Movement for Justice.”
What Ellison describes in “Fearless Dialogues” is a groundbreaking methodology he developed, an initiative he says is “committed to creating unique spaces for unlikely partners to engage in hard, heartfelt conversations.”
These aren’t conversations that go nowhere, he says, but are designed for participants to “see gifts in others, hear value in stories, and work for change and positive transformation in self and other.”
Ellison’s road toward the “Fearless Dialogues” movement grew out of his first book, “Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African American Young Men," published in 2013.
In it, Ellison, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, invites readers to enter the lives of five young men. He traces their journeys from a sense of their own invisibility to a sense of understanding of themselves and the world around them.
Ellison was leading a combined summer seminar-think tank series of conversations on “Cut Dead.” The group of 12 diverse professionals quickly became committed to a shared aim. They vowed to remain in community, to see and hear those without a voice and to address any rising discord they encountered.
And then “the fever pitch of discord,” as Ellison describes it, hit the national news headlines: “No Justice: Thousands March for Trayvon Martin.”
“We began by saying, ‘Let’s have a conversation with the community,’” says Ellison. The group put the word out through print and social media and local radio.
More than 300 people responded to the call, showing up at Candler on a Saturday afternoon in July. “There was no initial intent that the work we were doing in creating a space for conversation would develop into a movement," Ellison says. But a movement it has become.
In the last four years, Ellison and the Fearless Dialogues team have worked with more than 20,000 people, including gang leaders in New Orleans, activists in Ferguson, heads of state in the Bahamas, and more recently, in partnership with schools and corporations.
Behind it all is Ellison, a native of Atlanta and graduate of Atlanta Public Schools, Emory University and Princeton Theological Seminary. He has dedicated his teaching, research and scholarship to bringing unlikely partners together to really see and hear each other, as a first step in changing the way people see themselves and the world —and maybe even changing the world itself.
Unlikely conversation partners
In writing “Fearless Dialogues,” Ellison brings to readers not only his own research and study, but also his lived experiences with key people, both well-known and unknown, who have shaped his academic career and his life’s work. They include individuals such as author/activist Parker Palmer, author/theologian Barbara Brown Taylor and his unpublished but influential grandmothers.
“What I sought to do in writing the book was to put unlettered persons like my grandmothers in conversation with distinguished authors and theorists, and not to privilege one over the other,” Ellison explains. “We seek to create the same type of environment in the work of Fearless Dialogues: that no one person’s story is more important or less important than another’s.”
In the book Ellison recalls how his paternal grandmother, Franceina Ellison, helped him overcome fear of what he calls “country dark,” the dark of a rural landscape, unfamiliar and scary to a six-year-old Atlanta boy who was terrified by not being able to see his hand in front of his face.
“My grandmother taught me how to face fears of the unknown,” he says. “That became a benchmark in how we help individuals in Fearless Dialogues move into spaces that are unfamiliar.”
Likewise, his maternal grandmother, Mary Jane Simpson, introduced him to another tenet of Fearless Dialogues’ success formula: radical hospitality. Ellison describes how she routinely fed 30 to 40 people a day.
“Anyone who was hungry was welcome at her table,” he says. “At the time I thought all of these people were family because of the way she treated them. As I got older, I recognized that these were folks coming off of the streets in need of a meal.”
From experts such as Simpson, Henri Nouwen and others, Ellison outlines how Fearless Dialogues engages radical hospitality so that participants may sidestep the fear of strangers that can stop conversations before they begin.
Ellison’s narrative in “Fearless Dialogues,” as he weaves together theory and research with innovative stories and connections, is called “eclectic” in a recent Publishers Weekly starred review. The reviewer also calls him “a theologian for our times.”
“The reason I’ve written ‘Fearless Dialogues’ is not necessarily as a how-to manual,” says Ellison, “but it does explain the tenets and theories of our work so that families, faith communities and organizations can begin to have these conversations that are so richly needed in today’s political and social climate.”