If anything we have learned in the last couple weeks it is that there is a deep divide within our communities in terms of how we view people, ideas, and identities. In such instances of stratification, building bridges between people of different social backgrounds becomes increasingly important. One way we could start to diminish the differences in social backgrounds is to have dialogues and learn from each other, and to understand why it is not always easy to get along or to identify common ground. Intergroup dialogues encourage direct encounter and exchange about contentious issues, especially those associated with issues of social identity and social stratification. They invite people to actively explore the meanings of singular (such as men or as women) or intersecting (such as men of color or white women) social identities and to examine the dynamics of privilege and oppression that shape relationships between social groups in our society. In addition, dialogues can build dispositions and skills for developing and maintaining relationships across differences and for taking action for equity and social justice. Intergroup dialogue can be utilized for a variety of purposes, such as reducing prejudice by examining similarities of experiences, emphasizing issues of dominance and social justice, or encouraging meaningful inquiry into relations between one’s self and others.
Dialogues allow people to challenge misconceptions, biases and stereotypes. It is important to note that dialogue is very different from a discussion or debate. People come into a discussion or debate with preconceived ideas of truth, trying to prove the other wrong or to win an argument. In a dialogue, people learn to ask difficult questions of each other, they realize that not all people from this particular group fit their preconceptions of that group. People 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. Therefore, dialogue can be essential in addressing the legacies of racism and other forms of social injustice in our society and finding ways to come to a more just society.
These intergroup dialogues require trained facilitators who belong to the different social groups being dialogued about. Ximena Zuniga, an assistant professor in the Department of Student Development and Pupil Personnel Services at the School of Education, University of Massachusetts–Amherst and one of the cofounders of the University of Michigan Intergroup Relations Program addresses the importance of well-trained facilitators and their role in moderating the dialogue. According to Zuniga (2003), facilitators are professionals from counseling centers, student activities departments, human relations programs, or intergroup relations programs; or they are students who have received specialized training in counseling, college student development, or social justice education who will supervise the dialogue process and intervene when necessary (9). However, this requires diverse representations of the single as well as intersectional representation of different groups among professional staff and/or student groups mentioned above. Being a facilitator requires the knowledge and awareness about one’s own and other’s social identities and histories and the ability to encourage participants to ask questions and probe deeper in terms of multiple identities (11).
The challenge with intergroup dialogue is the process of bringing people from such diverse groups together. A solid foundation is required in order for meaningful dialogue to occur. According to Steiner Bryn, Director of Nansen Dialogue Center, Lillehammer, Norway and eight times nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in dialogue, getting people to participate in dialogue requires a sort of anthropological approach. He has a saying that it requires over 100 cups of coffee in order to sit with people, talk to different groups, and to immerse one’s self in the situation. In more anthropological terms, to understand the webs of significance that exist within the people and to acquire the prior knowledge needed before one is able to facilitate and moderate a conversation. This allows moderators and facilitators to understand the multiple dimensions of conflict or tensions but at the same time, give space for neutrality. In small campuses like St. Olaf College, having trained counselors, people who work in student development, and students who study social justice be facilitators allows them to come into dialogue sessions with knowledge of preexisting structures that perpetuate problematic behavior. What would be further required is an understanding of the participants, and the representation of such different groups among the facilitators.
Zuniga, Ximena. “Bridging Differences Through Dialogue.” People:U Mass (2003): 8-16. University of Massachusetts. Web. 6 Dec. 2016.