The desire and ability to connect with others is a fundamental aspect of human nature, summed up aptly by an undergraduate who completed Intergroup Dialogue Project’s (IDP) semester-long course: “Almost everyone you meet just wants to connect in some way and if you have the tools to do that, you can find connections with almost anyone.” Indeed, there is an abundance of research about human connection and its contributions to well-being (e.g., Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008 and Way et al., 2018 offer book-length explorations on the subject). 

Also, ample evidence exists suggesting that, for those of us living in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are contending with numerous societal obstacles to the cultivation of human connection. This “crisis of connection” is described in a recent book written by scholars from a range of disciplines who claim that “People are increasingly disconnected from themselves and each other, with a state of alienation, isolation, and fragmentation characterizing much of the modern world” (Way et al., 2018, p. 1).

The practice of intergroup dialogue can disrupt feelings of isolation by encouraging individuals to reflect on their own socialization, the stereotypes they’ve been exposed to, and the deleterious impact of some stories we tell about ourselves and people who belong to different social identity groups. This reflection often yields more genuine connection with oneself and, because it occurs alongside opportunities to practice dialogue, meaningful connections with people who have different social identities, experiences, and perspectives (Kivlighan & Arseneau, 2009; Zosel, 2018).

Connecting to Oneself

Becoming aware of our multiple social identities and how each is linked to broader social systems of power, privilege, and oppression can be a challenging process. Yet this work of unlearning often leads to more complex narratives about ourselves and opens more possibilities for connection. “Our ongoing examination of who we are in our full humanity, embracing all of our identities,” writes Beverly Tatum, “creates the possibility of building alliances that may ultimately free us all” (2017; p. 108).  

IDP’s semester-long course for undergraduates, EDUC 2610, provides a facilitated, sustained, and collaborative context for such examination and embracing of social identities. When asked about an important thing they learned in this course, one student replied, “I learned how to be self-aware.” For another student, this increased awareness was focused primarily on their experience of privilege: “I learned that I had privilege and I never would have known that without this class. It’s very humbling and eye opening.” Survey data reveal that, following their semester in this course, students were significantly more likely to agree with the statement, “I have a clear sense of who I am.” 

This finding is consistent with existing research on outcomes associated with intergroup dialogue; for example, a recent study found that participants cultivated a self-perception that more realistically reflected who they are in relation to others (Zosel, 2018). Knowing oneself and one’s place in a community is, as Tatum described, ongoing work, a sentiment reflected in this EDUC 2610 student’s takeaway from the course: “Getting to know myself and others is a lifelong process.”

Connecting to Others

Intergroup dialogue provides opportunities to both connect to one’s authentic self and form meaningful connections with others. Learning from others is a key component of this practice and researchers have found that the candid interactions in intergroup dialogue contexts lead participants to demonstrate increased empathy, motivation to bridge differences, and tendencies toward intergroup collaboration (Nagda et al., 2009). 

Since the need for connection is so central to human nature (Way et al., 2018), it is not at all surprising that participants in other IDP programs express yearnings to connect. On the post-survey at the end of IDP’s course for academic advisors, all of the participants indicated a desire to cultivate more meaningful connections with other academic advisors in their unit and in other units. As described by one academic advisor, the course itself provided a chance to actually form relationships and community with other participants:  “This course has had a very positive impact on my experience of professional community at Cornell. It is probably my main source of community among academic advisors. I do have a couple of other meetings with advisors but we do not talk and share our experiences in the way we do in this class. It makes me want to continue to reach out and get to know my colleagues.” 

Participating academic advisors not only used their dialogue skills to connect with colleagues in the course, but also the students they work with: “[this course] has caused me to take pause more in my work with students. Asking better questions and trying to connect with them more to get to the heart of why they are in a meeting with me.”

Connecting to (and Changing) Systems

In addition to promoting connections, IDP offerings also foster increased understanding of how individuals’ experiences are affected by the systems of power, privilege, and oppression in which we are embedded. Exploring and interrogating this connection between the personal, interpersonal, and systemic is a core characteristic of intergroup dialogue (Zúñiga et al., 2007). 

The vast majority of participants in our course for graduate and professional students and postdocs agreed that, after thinking about the cycle of socialization, a model that explicitly links individual experiences to broader social systems (Harro, 2010), they have a better understanding of how their own social identities have been developed. Additionally, they indicated that, during their experience with IDP, they thought about how their social identities connect to broader societal systems of power, privilege, and oppression. 

This increased clarity about their social identities and the associated links to social systems will, many of them believe, enable them to be more effective in their roles at Cornell and in their future career. One participant described some of the ways they anticipated using this knowledge after their IDP experience: “Engaging activities in the classroom that show how authority is constructed; engaging assignments that emphasize contextualizing and being critical of complex and influential ideas; teaching content from social perspectives that emphasizes internationalism, anti-racism, and feminism; creating and participating in more spaces in my department for graduate students to collaborate in social and professional ways.”

Though our experiences with social identities cannot be separated from the societal contexts in which they occur, these existing systems of power, privilege, and oppression are not immutable. One additional goal of intergroup dialogue is to build capacities that enable participants to be more effective in their efforts to create a more just world (Zúñiga et al., 2007). Many graduate and professional students and postdocs are actively involved in creating or contributing to research and teaching environments, such as classrooms and labs. At the end of their IDP course, participants felt more confident in their ability to create inclusive research and teaching environments. As described by one participant: “I hope to be more proactive when it comes to making change on campus and in the community.”