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Updated 10:00 AM October 31, 2005




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Dialogue Project helps students discuss differences

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Gather 75 young people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds from metropolitan Detroit—one of America's most segregated areas—form 14 teams with trained university students as facilitators to conduct intergroup dialogues during the summer; organize a retreat in which they live and work together in a U-M residence hall, and see what projects will develop.
Members of the Dialogue Project gather at Ingalls Mall.
(Photo by Naomi Milstein)

A lot happened in the Youth Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity in Metropolitan Detroit— a program funded in part by the Skillman Foundation of Detroit and the Office of the Senior Vice Provost, and one that demonstrates the mission of the National Center for Institutional Diversity. The teams devised eight project proposals that when implemented will challenge discrimination, build relationships and create community change.

"Young people are open to discussion of race and ethnicity," says Barry Checkoway, professor of social work and director of the dialogue program. "But they have few opportunities to communicate with people who are different from themselves. Without initiatives for intergroup dialogue, racial tension can be expected to rise and diverse democracy decline."

Through the dialogues participants learned a great deal about the experience of growing up in segregated areas, and about people who are different from themselves. One said she had never heard of someone being Jewish; another didn't know some schools celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day—her school didn't.

Others said that participating in the Dialogue Project was the first time they had experienced any real interaction with others from a different race or ethnicity. And most described this segregation and isolation as stemming, in part, from being from families that tend to stay rooted in communities.

Topics of self-segregation, different perspectives, coexistence and the complexity of race and differences openly were discussed, bringing one participant to say, "The dialogues made me think about how complex it is ... I mean race is individual but is also something that everyone shares. We're separated by them, but we are also connected by them ... I don't know, it's hard to grab my brain around it."

Participants acknowledged their own internal prejudices and reflected on thoughts and behaviors of the past.

"It seems like the dialogues sparked continuing reflection on this matter," said one facilitator. "At the same time, it was also powerful to hear the strength of how individuals also know that they can make a change in their own lives to be free of the system that they recognize."

Some participants were selected by their community organizations and were paid up to $500 to work on the project. Some were part of existing groups such as Peoples' Community Services, ACCESS, La Sed and West Bloomfield High School. Others were meeting for the first time.

Yet all came away acknowledging the dialogues helped them think differently about themselves, race and ethnicity and their communities, and that there are many commonalities among young people in metro Detroit, despite race or ethnicity.

One participant said, "We got to get things out in the open and realize that we aren't so different. We got to know some people that had totally different lives, totally different backgrounds, but there are still similarities between us."

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