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Fostering Intergroup Dialogue on Campus: Essential Ingredients
Ximena Zúñiga, Professor of Education, Social Justice Education Program, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Even before President Clinton's call for "a great national conversation on race and reconciliation," college students across the nation had been participating in facilitated dialogues across racial and other social group boundaries. Those who have participated in or organized dialogue programs have learned valuable lessons about what may facilitate productive dialogues.

Intergroup Dialogues: An Emerging Model

Bringing college students together to talk with one another across boundaries is a complex and challenging endeavor. In fact, efforts to foster positive intergroup conversations around issues of diversity, conflict, community, and social justice utilize a variety of approaches. In some, the focus is on reducing prejudice by examining similarities of experience; others emphasize issues of dominance and social justice or encourage meaningful inquiry into relations between self and others.

Several programs are being formed on college campuses to sponsor "Intergroup Dialogues." Intergroup dialogues are defined as facilitated, face-to-face meetings between students from two or more social identity groups that have a history of conflict or potential conflict. Examples include dialogues between Women and Men; Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexual and Heterosexual People; White People and People of Color; Women of Color and White Women; Asians and Whites; Latinos/as and African Americans; American Indians and Whites; Christians, Muslims and Jews; Asian Americans and Latino/as; People with Disabilities and People without Disabilities. These meetings may be offered as part of the undergraduate curriculum or as co-curricular activities.

Intergroup dialogue programs are based on the premise that sustained and meaningful intergroup contact, dialogue, and education are necessary to address issues of conflict and to promote the creation of just, multicultural campus communities. Intergroup dialogues engage students in an educational process which encourages sustained conversation, exploration of both conflict and common ground, and action to improve cross-group relations and address social injustices. With leadership and guidance from trained facilitators and a structured curriculum, students question stereotypes, biases and misinformation, engage in difficult dialogues, and discover a new appreciation for the roles they can take to promote meaningful and constructive intergroup relations.

This approach was initially developed at the University of Michigan and has subsequently been implemented at Arizona State University, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the University of Washington, Seattle, among others. Recently, approximately 100 campus leaders actively involved in, or interested in developing, this sort of program met at the University of Michigan to discuss conceptual and practical issues in implementing intergroup dialogues.

The main objectives of the intergroup dialogue process are to encourage self-reflective conversation and inquiry that break through the surface tension created by difference; clarify and address issues of potential conflict (e.g., interracial/interfaith relationships, affirmative action, social integration on campus); and challenge students to rethink many of their attitudes, assumptions, and political and social understandings through sharing of feelings and experiences, critical analysis of historical and sociological material, and consideration of alternative perspectives.

Intergroup dialogues typically include twelve to sixteen participants (with roughly equal numbers from each social identity group) and two trained student facilitators of diverse backgrounds representing the social identity groups in dialogue. It is essential that facilitators attend regular debriefing and process consultation sessions. Typically, groups meet weekly for at least two hours for six to twelve weeks. The groups may incorporate a curriculum that allows for a developmental, experiential, and structured approach to intergroup education. In academic credit-bearing intergroup dialogues, students may write weekly journal entries, read and react to weekly assigned readings, and write self reflection papers.

The Importance of Trained Facilitators

Training of facilitators is essential for effective learning and increased intergroup understanding. Facilitation of intergroup dialogues may include a blend of traditional group facilitation practices, transformative models of conflict exploration and social justice education, and collaborative group work models for supporting individual empowerment and community building.

In most programs, facilitators receive training in the following competency areas: awareness of self as members of social groups in the context of systems of dominance and oppression, and "in/out" intergroup dynamics; knowledge about the groups participating in the dialogue (including their histories, the history of their conflicts, and their current status); knowledge of group development and group process; and skills in facilitating dialogue and conflict exploration, leading discussions, designing and leading experiential activities, and community building.

It is important to have facilitators work closely with a group of consultants who assist them with agenda planning and educational design. Consultants also provide one-to-one coaching and feedback, particularly when facilitators face difficult intra and intergroup dynamics. In many programs, professional support is provided by faculty, student affairs professionals, or advanced graduate students. Without well-trained facilitators, attempts to initiate difficult dialogues across race, gender, sexual orientation and other group differences are likely to become volatile, unsafe, and potentially destructive.

What Can Intergroup Dialogues Accomplish?

Intergroup dialogues allow students to challenge misconceptions, biases and stereotypes. As students learn to ask difficult questions of each other, they realize that "not all people from this particular group" fit their preconceptions of that group. Students also develop an awareness of themselves as members of a social identity group. They examine the impact of social identities such as gender, race, or sexual orientation upon status in society.

In this process, students from dominant social groups often struggle with the idea that their social group membership grants unearned privileges not available to members of subordinated social groups. On the other hand, although students from subordinate groups are generally more aware of the impact of social group membership on their identities and status in society, they become more aware of the complexities of social identity and group relationships as they engage in substantial dialogue with peers similar to and different from themselves.

Students also develop a more positive approach to exploring difficult and potentially conflictual topics. Once students learn to move beyond their initial caution and anxiety about conflict, they develop skills that enable them to intervene to keep the dialogue going, even when it gets difficult. Finally, students identify concrete ways of taking actions that promote a more socially just campus.

Participants and facilitators often report that the dialogue process has a kind of "magic" in its impact. Several factors seem to contribute to this effect. First, many students comment on the value of participating in a personalized, non-judgmental environment where they feel more free to ask "taboo" questions, make mistakes, share experiences, feelings and opinions, and expose their limited understanding of a particular issue. Students particularly value the opportunity to verbalize disagreements, name conflicts, and ask difficult questions within small groups with diverse compositions. Intergroup dialogues offered within the regular academic curriculum (unlike those offered on a volunteer basis in residence halls and through student organizations) have the advantage of allowing for sequencing of learning objectives and activities to support sustained and informed dialogue over a longer period of time.

Overcoming Institutional Challenges

In spite of the demonstrated value of the intergroup dialogues, there are several programmatic and institutional challenges involved in their implementation. The "process" and "content" orientation in the design and facilitation of the dialogues requires the merging of a "traditional" classroom education with a more "non-traditional," experiential approach. The former is grounded in the knowledge base of the disciplines and professions, and as a result is more content-oriented and cognitive in focus. The latter is more grounded in the knowledge base of student development, and it tends to be more process-oriented, affective, and behavioral in focus. The peer-student leadership structure of the intergroup dialogue pedagogy requires training and supervision of facilitators. This requires bringing together diverse teams of faculty, student affairs professionals, and advanced graduate students to provide leadership and support. A challenge many institutions face, however, is identifying faculty and student affairs professionals who are willing or able to provide effective leadership in organizing and supervising intergroup dialogue programs.

The intentional focus on diversity and social justice issues brings another programmatic challenge. Programming intergroup dialogue across race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation requires the development of relevant curricula and recruitment of students from diverse social identity groups. As in all campus diversity work, it is essential that curricular or co-curricular efforts be mutually supportive and integrated in students'campus experience. In fact, the successful implementation of intergroup dialogues requires building new forms of inter-unit collaboration between academic and student affairs divisions.

Despite these challenges, intergroup dialogue is essential if we are to address the legacies of racism and other forms of social injustice in our society. Student testimonies about the value of intergroup dialogue programs attest powerfully to the need to overcome whatever challenges these programs may present for the individuals and the institutions that participate in them. By promoting alternative models for dialogue across diverse communities, higher education clearly has a crucial role to play in both the "conversations" and the "reconciliations" of the future.

Selected Resources on
Intergroup Dialogue

Adams, M., et. al. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Source Book (New York: Routledge, 1997).

Burbules, N. Dialogue in Teaching (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993).

Chesler, M. "Race Talk: Thinking and Talking About Racism," The Diversity Factor (Spring, 1995).

Nagda, B. A., et. al. "Bridging Differences Through Intergroup Dialogues," in S. Hatcher, ed. Peer Programs on a College Campus: Theory, Training and 'Voice of Peers' (San Jose, CA: Resources Publications, Inc., 1995).

Stephan, W. G. & Stephan, C.W. Intergroup Relations (Westview Press, 1996).

Zúñiga, X. & Sevig, T. D. "Bridging the Us/Them Divide Through Intergroup Dialogues and Peer Leadership," The Diversity Factor (Winter, 1997).


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