Effective Dialogue to Create Change: Breaking the Silence and Stepping out of the Comfort Zone
At the beginning of April, I participated in the Harvard and MIT Brazil Conference, an event organized by students at these institutions with the mission of bringing together brilliant minds and key influencers in various fields to discuss Brazil’s social, economic, and political issues. It is an academic and business gathering; I was the only athlete invited to participate, one of the four panelists discussing diversity and inclusion in Brazilian society. The value of sports is indisputable–from character-building and teaching values, to empowerment of women and children, to being a vehicle for peace–and it was an interesting experience being a representative of sports at an event that could have very easily not included sports, however tangentially, in its agenda.
At an event dominated by academics, businessmen (and women), and politicians, I felt an extra burden to not only represent rugby well and convey my personal experiences, especially after my unintentionally very-public Olympic marriage proposal, but to also explain the relevance of sport when constructing dialogues intent on changing a conflict-ridden country.
Sport has the power to bring together people who might not have any other reason or opportunity to interact. I think of my own trajectory in rugby, for example, and how I moved to Brazil in 2014 to eventually earn a spot on the Olympic squad. Through rugby, I have met and forged friendships with people with whom I would not have otherwise crossed paths. When we train and compete, my teammates and I set aside our differences and find common ground, working towards a common goal. When we participate in multi-sport events, like the Pan-American Games and the Olympic Games, we experience a world coming together through sport, promoting values like respect and diversity.
This coming together is perhaps the first ingredient to promoting dialogue. Silence, on the other hand, favors the status quo, which often perpetuates inequality, discrimination, and violence. Starting a conversation, breaking the silence around an issue, is the first step towards change; putting ideas into words, so they can be communicated and discussed. But this process also has the utmost importance of naming problems: to talk about an issue is to identify, problematize, and confront it. It is through words that we then begin to focus on solutions.
During my journey to become a high-performance athlete, an Olympic athlete, I have grown immensely and have felt ever more empowered through feeling my body’s strength and capacity. I use the words “empowerment” and “feminism” with my teammates and it is perhaps the first time that many of them have had the opportunity to reflect more about these concepts. When my engagement to Marjorie made international headlines, it seemed like everyone was suddenly talking about gay rights, LGBT visibility, and homophobia in sports. Shedding light on an issue and bringing it to the forefront began by inserting it into a dialogue (a headline that generated buzz, for example).
The Olympic Games always represent a moment to discuss Olympic values like peace and equality. However, the true Olympic legacy is continuing these conversations after the closing ceremony. When the Games pack up and prepare to move to the next host city, everyone shares the responsibility of continuing to promote its values. For those of us who champion, promote, and work towards positive change, we share perhaps a larger responsibility of starting this conversation and creating an inclusive atmosphere that can bring everyone to the table.
This is the second great barrier to hurdle, opening the conversation to people on all sides of an issue. I don’t mean bringing together people from different areas of expertise and experience–government officials, NGO workers, community members, academics–but bringing together people with different ideologies and mindsets. Rather than validating ideas within a circle of like-minded, supportive colleagues, striving towards an inclusive discussion requires courage and openness to step out of your comfort zone. After all, conversations require an exchange of ideas, an opportunity to embrace and appreciate diverse viewpoints, so that the result can be constructive. By participating in a true conversation, all parties involved become stakeholders, thereby recognizing the relevance of the issues at hand and the need for change.
Change happens slowly, and often unexpectedly. We tend to think of revolutions like tides turning, but it actually happens when each one of us realizes that by taking one step forward we are no longer in the same place. As an introvert, I had to step out of my comfort zone to participate in interviews, TV and radio programs, and photo shoots to spread a message of tolerance and equality. What started in an unapologetic display of affection led to several conversations that have reached people all over the world, but each person can find their own path to promote positive change. It can be as simple as starting a conversation.