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Updated 3:00 PM August 7, 2008




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  Program on Intergroup Relations is 20
Institute shows universities how to start programs

Related story:
Students explore identity through Intergroup Dialogue >

"This is confidential, right?" one participant nervously asks at the start of an activity on social identity.

The answer is yes, as some 100 faculty, staff and students from universities across the country prepare to participate in an activity that will ask them to identify themselves according to the memberships that characterize them: race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, religion or spiritual affiliation, among others.

The Social Identity Wheel is used early in intergroup dialogue courses, but the participants today were not Michigan students. They were representatives from some 30 colleges and universities across the country who either have something similar to U-M's Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) or who are considering beginning one. The four-day Multi-University Intergroup Dialogue Institute was held July 23-26 at Palmer Commons.

In addition to research data about the effects of intergroup dialogue, participants were given an overview of the history of the program that began at U-M 20 years ago, some hands-on participation in dialogue and research, and a complete course guide detailing how to begin a program and conduct an evaluation of its effectiveness.

The Social Identity Wheel activity not only asked participants to declare the memberships they have but to open up about how those memberships limit them, give them privilege or produce within them an emotional response.

One woman told her partner in the activity that her Asian heritage, socio-economic status and straight sexual orientation were among the memberships that she felt made her privileged in the eyes of society. One man thought his identification as a Christian sometimes was a limitation. Another man wondered why size was not listed on the wheel as one of the characteristics that identify and sometimes limit individuals.

Rosie Cabrera, director of the Chicano Latino Resource Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who hopes to work with colleagues to begin a program at her institution, said after the activity that she and one of her partners talked about their experiences of being limited by gender.

"It's real and yet there are times I think, 'Come on get over it.' But the mere fact that you're even thinking about it means it's still there."

Cabrera said her ethnic background defines, at times limits, but also empowers her.

"I grew up in the central valley of California very acutely aware of being Mexican in an environment that was racist, and yet being light skinned wasn't viewed the same way as others," she said.

"For me that was a very hurtful place that stops you from being the fullest you are. These are things that hindered my sense of self but are the very fuel that make me say, 'I am not that. I am so much more.' "

Some of the feelings churned in this abbreviated activity barely scratched the surface of what takes place during a course on intergroup dialogue, conference organizers said. It is through an entire process of continued structured dialogue that participants learn to relate, communicate and build alliances and coalitions — key goals of the program.

"We think that intergroup dialogue prepares students to be informed participants in a democracy," Jacylyn Rodriquez, psychology professor and director of the Intergroup Dialogue Program at Occidental College and institute co-chair, told those in attendance. "We have found that they think more complexly about themselves, other people in the world and the connection between them.

Throughout the institute, Patricia Gurin, the Nancy Cantor Distinguished University Professor Emerita and one of the founders of IGR, and colleagues at other universities offered participants a preview of research that shows how students are affected by the program. Supported by the W.T. Grant and Ford Foundations, nine institutions in 2005-08 participated in the benchmark Multi-University Intergroup Dialogue Research project, the first in-depth experimental/control group, longitudinal study of the model.

A full report on the research will be available in fall but early findings show that students develop significant strengths in social identity engagement, awareness of inequality, motivation to bridge differences, empathy and confidence in taking action.

"At this time in our nation's history, many individuals and organizations are calling for a national conversation about race. Such conversations also are needed about gender and other kinds of social differences and commonalities." Gurin said.

"We want students to end up with the capacity to have deep and meaningful conversations," Gurin told participants, adding that can only happen with guidance from skilled facilitators.

Thomas Massey, associate dean of student affairs at Stanford, said he is ready to start a program at his university and was glad to come away from the institute with evidence of its success.

"The outcomes they elicited were about what I would expect but I didn't have empirical evidence, and that is where my university is," Massey said. "We now have evidence that what we have been talking about, and the places we want to go, are correct."

Massey said the various activities and materials presented at the institute will be helpful in training facilitators.

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