Intergroup Dialogues Initiate Difficult Conversations on Campus

Jackie Cannon

Chief News Editor

 

The Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Chief Diversity officer at the College of the Holy Cross, Amit Taneja, has initiated a program, Intergroup Relations, on campus in an effort to make Holy Cross a climate that encourages discussions on difficult topics.

 

According to its program website, Intergroup Relations, also referred to as Intergroup Dialogue, “is a social justice education program. IGR blends theory and experiential learning to facilitate students’ learning about social group identity, social inequality, and intergroup relations.” The program originated at the University of Michigan in 1988 and Dean Taneja has now brought it to Holy Cross for students, faculty, and staff to have a way to talk about controversial issues while limiting unproductive debate.

 

The key element of this method, Dean Taneja explained, is dialogue over debate. He stated, “we live in a country where it’s very difficult to talk about race, to talk about socioeconomic class, to talk about sexual orientation, like all those kinds of things, so these educators really tried to figure out a way to bring students together to be able to have a productive dialogue.”

 

He also likened the process to learning to fly a plane: “You don’t know how to fly the plane on the first day. It takes time, practice, and small steps to eventually take flight. This same example applies to the fact that this process needs to begin before a crisis takes place, and so teaching students the initial first steps to productive dialogues before requiring them to talk about extremely difficult issues is a good first step.”

 

The Intergroup Relations workshop that about 45 faculty and staff attended only took place a few weeks ago, but Dean Taneja shared that faculty and staff had ideas on how to implement this program in their classes or in co-curricular events even during the workshop.

 

One simple example that faculty would be able to employ in their classes would an activity called “concentric circles.” This would consist of two circles of students, one on the inside and one on the outside, and the circles would rotate to allow students to talk one-on-one with their peers. Dean Taneja shared the example of a difficult question related to the concept of race, and how students would all be able to engage in dialogues through this activity, whereas participation would most likely be much lower in a class-wide discussion.

 

Student testimonials is a second example that would fit within the framework of Intergroup Relations. Through a five-minute synopsis of their lives and personal histories, students can share information that professors and peers often are unaware of. This allows for a greater understanding of where an individual’s beliefs are coming from when they engage in conversations. Dean Taneja explained that the testimonial process then “fundamentally shifts my understanding of not seeing you as labels. I can make all kinds of assumptions about your race or your gender or your socioeconomic class, but now I know the story behind your history and I can do something differently.”

 

Dean Taneja explained that he first taught using the intergroup dialogue method at Syracuse University and, seeing the progress it made there, thought it was a “no-brainer” to bring the program to Holy Cross. He added that he is still in touch through social media with some of the students he taught, and that he has witnessed the profound effect it has had on them: “It brought them to a sense of being involved in larger social justice work in a meaningful way, so they’re not out there yelling at people or calling them names, but they show up to the right things, they ask deep questions, they listen well.”

 

This method of communication is particularly relevant considering the divided state of the nation presently, Dean Taneja concluded. It’s easy for students to see the debate model in the news, so what is important is for them to experience deep dialogue. “My hope is that this just becomes consistent, like it becomes standard practices at Holy Cross, like Holy Cross students are known for their ability to think deeply and to be able to talk about difficult things and do it as a dialogue and not as a debate.”

 

Between polarized political opinions on the news every day, and even Holy Cross-specific debates, such as the potential mascot change, there is no shortage of opportunities for students to begin this process on campus. Dean Taneja shared his final thoughts: “I see this as a much larger way to heal some of the wounds that the country is really intensely experiencing at this moment.”

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