Changing Campus Culture One Conversation at a Time…(Drs. Lorna Hernandez Jarvis and Deirdre D. Johnston, Hope College)

Dr. Lorna Hernandez Jarvis (Professor of Psychology) and Dr. Deirdre D. Johnston (Department of Communication), Hope College

We recently attended a professional conference on “Teaching Peace in the Context of Political Polarization and Partisan Divides.” During the Q & A of the plenary address, members of the audience raised questions, and made comments such as: “How do I talk to someone when I think they are just morally wrong?” “We should not address political issues in the classroom because they are too contentious.” “We should be apolitical and be completely value free in our teaching.” “We should first get everyone to agree on a common vision then we can move forward.”

At a time when our institutional goals are coalescing around global and cultural competencies, there is — on campuses as well as within the American and European zeitgeist and politics — an increasingly vocal opposition to these educational goals.  In addition, many small liberal arts schools lack the religious, class, race/ethnicity and international diversity to challenge students’ experience of people and perspectives different from their own. Both faculty and students find themselves at best hesitant, and at worst ill-equipped, to engage in difficult conversations across social identities and values.

How then, do we equip both faculty and students with the cross-cultural communication skills, as well as a structured process, for engaging in substantive and productive analysis of values, ideologies and social identities? We have found “Intergroup Dialogue” to be an excellent pedagogy tool to increase cultural competency and to address resistance to diversity education and global learning goals.

What is Intergroup Dialogue?

Intergroup Dialogue is a structured and facilitated process of utilizing specific communication skills to engage differences in social identities and controversial social issues. The purpose of intergroup dialogue is to foster in-depth understanding, not to generate agreement on contentious issues. In a typical classroom discussion, we engage in serial monologues, resulting in a disjointed narrative, little listening, and at best a superficial analysis of the real issues underlying social divides. In contrast, intergroup dialogue requires that we ask questions of others to go further in depth in our understanding of their values and viewpoints, as opposed to attempting to impose our own ideas on them. The result is reflective listening, connected narrative, and an in-depth exploration of identities, values and perspectives.

Intergroup Dialogue pedagogy was developed at the University of Michigan over 25 years ago, and consists of a multistage model that incorporates: 1) understanding one’s own social identity, intersectionality, and the identities of others, as well as oppression, power and privilege, 2) engaging in hot topics with one identity focus (e.g., age, race or ethnicity, sex, sexual identity, able-ism, religion, nationality, or gender), and 3) building alliances to work for social justice. In our work, we have added the development of communication skills to the model, thereby enabling participants to lean in to conflict and controversy in productive ways. We have found that to reach dialogue, as opposed to a polite discussion, or an argumentative debate, participants need a foundation in what are truly cross-cultural communication practices, involving listening, asking essential questions, monitoring non-verbals, exploring feelings, validating others with whom one disagrees, and speaking from one’s own personal experience.

Student Impact

Working with a peer-facilitated dialogue over a six-week period, we found that profound transformation could take place in a relatively short amount of time. A student in the first week freely articulated homophobic statements riddled with derogatory language and disclosing a lot of anger. By the 6th week of dialogue the same student shared that his family had taught him to believe people with different sexual identities were morally wrong and reprehensible, and that he had, in the past, actively participated in making fun of and bullying people about their sexual identities. As a result of the intergroup dialogue module focusing on sexual identity, he recognized that his past behaviors were mistaken, his family’s attitude was wrong, and though he could not support gay marriage as a religious sacrament, he had come to understand why LGBTQ+ people should be afforded protection of civil rights under the law and should be treated with dignity and respect. This anecdote highlights how the process of intergroup dialogue helped this student to overcome his resistance. By taking agreement off the table, developing cross-cultural communication skills, and building understanding of social identities, this student was able to engage in meaningful and respectful ways to authentically explore his values and beliefs.

Another student in a semester-long dialogue course talked about how his family achieved their financial status and security in American society as a result of his immigrant grandparents’ hard work. He held firm to the presumption that other groups immigrating to America, whether by force or choice, had just not worked hard enough to secure the privileges his family status afforded him. Through the examination of historical privilege, and through the process of dialogue, which gave him a modestly safe space to articulate and explore his beliefs, he came to realize that his grandparents had, through World War II housing loans available to veterans, benefited from the same “government handouts” he was criticizing, and that other immigrant and minority groups have not received benefits similar to those that launched his family’s financial success.

If either of these two examples had unfolded in the course of a typical classroom discussion, the students might have become defensive about their viewpoints and shut down psychologically, socially and emotionally, blocking truly transformative learning. In contrast, intergroup dialogue provided a learning sequence, taking participants through the stages of building group trust and rapport, developing counter-cultural communication skills, and understanding one’s own and others’ identities, before launching into controversial topics. When contentious topics are introduced, they are engaged upon a foundation of trust and interaction guidelines such that unpopular and divisive viewpoints can be articulated and openly explored.


(Video demonstration of the Intergroup Dialogue Process)

Faculty Impact

The pedagogy of intergroup dialogue for diversity education can be incorporated in courses across the disciplines. We conduct faculty development training to help faculty integrate this pedagogy as a way to add diversity content to their courses in statistics, geology, introductory math and science, as well as courses in the social sciences, arts and the humanities.

Faculty who use this pedagogy report a positive impact on their teaching effectiveness, ability to engage diversity education and lead difficult conversations, as well as in their personal and professional development. As one remarked, “[This] pedagogy has given me a tool set that I am excited to try, to have a deeper, less-nice, but more honest and engaging conversation among students that leads to profound changes in hearts and minds.” Another found that, “…[this pedagogy] enabled me to examine my own teaching in a course that I love.  Then with a new perspective, build it again from the ground up, all while continually examining use of language, teaching vocabulary, assignments, students’ self-reflections, etc.  It was a treasure trove for me.” Faculty also report increased confidence in challenging students to think critically about their beliefs and values.  One faculty member reported, “As a teacher I have found a new sense of freedom to both share with my students and challenge them.”

Faculty of underrepresented groups report that using intergroup dialogue gives them the confidence and specific tools to address diversity issues in a predominantly majority environment. Specifically, intergroup dialogue provides tools for responding to offensive triggers, and for creating a space for the articulation of viewpoints that may be contrary to their lived experience. For dominant culture faculty the training allows them to explore their assumptions and prejudices and ask the “un-askable” questions about sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, and other social identities in dialogue with their faculty colleagues. In the classroom, dominant culture faculty report increased confidence and ability to challenge the perspectives of dominant culture students.


Assessment of the impact of intergroup dialogue on students’ learning point to significant positive outcomes. Assessments in our own courses as well as courses at other institutions indicate intergroup dialogue leads to increases in:  

  • Empathy for diverse others
  • Motivation to interact with diverse others
  • Motivation to work for social justice
  • Understanding of social identities and their impact in cultural interactions
  • Confidence to engage in difficult conversations
  • Psychological and social well-being for minority students

Many of these outcomes are directly linked to cultural competency goals and institutional missions.


Intergroup dialogue works as a pedagogical tool for engaging diversity education and polarizing social issues because it provides a structured sequence, beginning with establishing trust and rapport, developing specific countercultural communication skills, exploring the role and impact of social identities, leaning into conflict, and culminating in the identification of individual and community ‘next steps’ for developing ally skills and building alliances to support social justice. Intergroup dialogue, with its integration of cognitive, affective and experiential learning, leads to a qualitatively different type of classroom engagement of social and political issues. To return to the questions in our introduction, yes, we can engage with someone we believe is morally wrong. Yes, we can address contentious political issues in the classroom. Yes, we can be multi-partial (but not impartial and value free) in our teaching. And, before we can agree on a common vision to bridge our social and political divides, we must first seek to understand each other.

To learn more, please check out the 3-day Summer Institute on Intergroup Dialogue & Diversity Education, July 23-26 at Hope College.

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