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Students explore identity through Intergroup Dialogue

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Institute shows universities how to start programs >

Adina Bodenstein first heard of Intergroup Dialogue as a sociology student two years ago at the University of California, San Diego. As part of her studies she was required to do a social justice project and taking a dialogue class was one way she could accomplish that.

Once enrolled in the class, which focused on gender, Bodenstein says it took her a while to acclimate to the unusual teaching style. One exercise in particular — the web of oppression, in which participants all hold parts of a rope web covered with oppressive sayings — deeply affected her.

"I felt silly at first, holding the web," she says. "But then when I looked at what the web means, the jokes, the systematic oppression that's still going on, it took on new meaning. I couldn't let go. And if I did, the web would just tangle, but it wouldn't get rid of the words. It really got the message across."

Intergroup Dialogue is one of many courses offered through The Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR), which was founded in 1988 at a time of heightened racial and ethnic tensions at the U-M Ann Arbor campus.

Created to advance student understanding of, and respect for, diversity, IGR's central goal is to engage students proactively in learning about the complexities of living in a multicultural society through directed intergroup dialogue, coursework and co-curricular activities. As The Program on Intergroup Relations marks its 20th anniversary at U-M, the program now is at eight other universities that have collaborated in a randomized experimental study to evaluate its effects. Another 30 schools were at U-M last week to learn about the program.

Intergroup Dialogue is a face-to-face encounter between members from two or more different social groups that have a history of conflict or potential conflict. It is broadly defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, socioeconomic class and other social group identities. Participants learn to listen, ask questions of others and commit to understanding the perspectives of others, even if they do not agree.

The experience so profoundly affected Bodenstein that she went through training to become a facilitator at UC San Diego, and has led classes on gender, religion, and race and ethnicity.

“This is the only class I took where I learned something that I’ll take with me the rest of my life,” she says.

Bodenstein, who will attend U-M in the fall to work on a master’s degree in social work, says she will bring with her new skills through better communication and active listening, both of which have strengthened her social justice work.

While growing up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., J. Patrick Howe believed in social justice but never thought about confronting racism and privilege. That all changed his freshman year at U-M when he took his first Intergroup Dialogue class.

"IGR gave me the opportunity to meet, interact with and build relationships with people outside of my social circle," says Howe, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in organizational studies from LSA in 2002, then a law degree from University of Detroit, Mercy in 2005. "I viewed this as an experience to take advantage of the university community ... a campus with people from all over the world. I wanted to experience to interact with people very different from me."

As a conservative, Catholic, white male who came from a stable household and socioeconomic background, Howe says he often found students questioning his agenda. To complicate matters, he was president of his fraternity Theta Chi and a member of the Interfraternity Council.

"People would ask me, 'How are you going to promote social justice?'" he recalls. "I would ask them, 'Why do my identities have to be mutually exclusive?'"

While critics have called the program divisive and a tool to instill leftist ideology in students, Howe sees it differently.

"Some say there's a liberal agenda, but I disagree," he says. "This class creates a space where people can interact with others they may not encounter in their ordinary lives."

Howe has incorporated the skills he learned from IGR into his work life, specifically practical communication and conflict resolution. "I work with others more efficiently, especially with local governments, planning commissions, zoning boards," he says. "This experience helped me become a better advocate and communicator."

As a freshman Howe trained to become facilitator and he led discussions on race and male-female relations during his sophomore, junior and senior years. Facilitating dialogue classes was most rewarding for Howe.

Ryan Miller first heard of Intergroup Dialogue during freshman orientation at The University of Texas at Austin. Miller, who identifies as Queer, wanted to take the class on exploring homophobia but instead was placed in a group examining racism.

"When I came to college I was not very socially aware of racism, sexism, discrimination," says Miller, communications program coordinator in the Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement at UT. "I was not aware of the vocabulary of oppression and privilege. As a gay man I was working for change, but I didn't see the interconnections that were there."

Miller took four Intergroup Dialogue classes, two of which gave him the training to be a group facilitator.

"This opened my eyes to a whole new world," he says. "It was an intense, transformational process. I now realize it was the experience I came to college for."

The classes challenged Miller to examine his life, how he was raised and what things influenced him. At times he found himself at odds with friends and family members who did not go through the same process. He continued to share his experiences with them, and he says they have become more open to dialogue about their own privilege.

In college, Miller was active in the LGBT community, but it was not until he took an Intergroup Dialogue class that he became more aware of how oppression affected everyone. As a result, Miller credits the class with improving his activism and newly built alliances.

As a junior at the University of Washington in Seattle, Rehema Abdi took a course on race, class and gender but the discussions left her reeling. "I left that class thinking, 'Is this what's going on? What next?'" she recalls. "I couldn't leave it at that."

Then the Somalia-born social work major, who immigrated to the United States six years ago from Kenya, found out about Intergroup Dialogue.

Adbi describes the intense process as a "rollercoaster ride" that forced her to look deeply at herself. She was shocked to discover how she was perceived by others.

"I didn't know I was a black female in the United States," Abdi says. "I thought I was just Rehema."

Suddenly comments people had made about her started to make sense, like a job interviewer asking where she learned to speak such good English, and another person wondering if Abdi, a Muslim who wears a hijab, was allowed to attend school.

"That is not right," she says. "I came to America thinking this place was the land where everyone was treated equally, justice for all. I was shocked to realize: Justice for who?"

Now in her senior year at UW, Abdi enjoys facilitating Intergroup Dialogue classes on race and gender.

"I have a greater self awareness," she says. "I learned how to make people feel comfortable to express themselves in a safe environment without being judged.

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