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The Project will Equip YMCAs to Convene Community-Led, Bridge-Building Dialogues About Divisive Issues


Cambridge, MA, May 16, 2024 – At a time when domestic politics and international conflicts have damaged and divided American communities, several local YMCAs and Essential Partners (EP) will embark on a project to catalyze a network of community bridge-builders across the United States.

“By leveraging the infrastructure of local YMCAs, among America’s most trusted community institutions, we can begin to mend the wounds of polarization,” said John Sarrouf, Essential Partners co-Executive Director. “We’ll empower local residents to transform the way their communities navigate differences of identities and perspectives—particularly around sensitive or challenging issues. We want to foster the kind of inclusive, robust, pluralistic public discourse that is crucial for our democracy and our communities to thrive.”

Funded by a $224,000 grant from the AAA-ICDR Foundation, this two-year initiative will focus on building local capacity and spreading transformative dialogue practices via select local YMCA networks, beginning with the YMCA of Pierce & Kitsap Counties (WA). EP will train YMCA staff members, volunteers, and youth leaders in its Reflective Structured Dialogue approach, a research-driven framework to build more constructive communication practices, authentic relationships, and healthier community norms around differences of identities and perspectives.

Affiliated YMCAs will serve a crucial role as conveners for community-led dialogues on issues such as health disparities, racial inequity, rural/urban divides, public safety, and the upcoming Presidential election. The project’s ultimate goal is to develop a sustainable, scalable infrastructure that empowers residents to co-create inclusive, connected, and thriving communities. They’ll achieve this by improving three key measures:

  • Willingness and capacity to engage with different perspectives
  • Social cohesion and understanding across differences
  • Community members’ sense of inclusion and belonging

Improvement in each of these measures is a proven outcome of Reflective Structured Dialogue. Research has also shown that dialogue can effectively interrupt deepening cycles of polarization within communities and institutions.

In addition, this initiative will create new and renewed social infrastructure anchored by the partner YMCAs. Just as communities rely on healthcare, transportation, and emergency service infrastructures, they also rely on infrastructure that supports connection, belonging, healthy public discourse, and resilience.

EP-trained community members will be encouraged to deploy Reflective Structured Dialogue frameworks in community dialogues hosted by select local YMCAs and across other cornerstones of their community’s social infrastructure, such as libraries, schools, faith institutions, and workplaces. By investing in local capacity and cornerstone institutions, this collaboration aims to make lasting change possible in communities across the country.

“This is the gift of a highly adaptable and scalable framework like Reflective Structured Dialogue,” said Janele Nelson, Mission Director of YMCA Pierce and Kitsap Counties, one of the cohort YMCAs participating. “We give people the tools and they find uses for them in every area of their lives. So much of the power of our approach is about trusting the imagination and local expertise of each community.”

Together, Essential Partners and participating local YMCA associations, hope to influence the way whole communities manage difference and to stop the rising polarization that plagues American public life.


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Press Contact
Daniel Pritchard
Director of Marketing and Communications
Essential Partners

About Essential Partners

Founded in 1989, Essential Partners helps people build relationships across differences to address their communities’ most pressing challenges. EP has brought its research-based approach to conflict transformation to colleges and secondary schools, museums and libraries, civic organizations and faith communities, nonprofits and corporations across the United States. Visit whatisessential.org to learn more.

About the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties

The Y is the leading nonprofit committed to strengthening community by connecting all people to their potential, purpose, and each other. Working locally, we focus on empowering young people, improving health and well-being, and inspiring action in and across communities. By bringing together people from different backgrounds, perspectives and generations, we ensure that we all have access to the opportunities, relationships and resources necessary to learn, grow, and thrive. 

About the AAA-ICDR Foundation

The American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation (AAA-ICDR Foundation) was established in 2015 by the American Arbitration Association to fund projects that promote conflict resolution and prevention in communities across the country and around the world.