Human agency and society are inextricably linked; humans create and shape systems of power, privilege, and oppression, and humans can change these systems to dismantle hierarchies, promote equity, and bring about a more just world. An emphasis on this personal and collective responsibility is common in intergroup dialogue programs, which, in addition to using dialogic practices to explore social identity within the group of participants, also focus on helping participants identify opportunities to make change in their communities (Frantell, Miles, & Ruwe, 2019; Mayhew & Fernández, 2007; Nagda, Gurin, Sorensen, & Zúñiga, 2009). This simultaneous engagement with skills, identities, and tangible actions characterizes Intergroup Dialogue Project’s (IDP) programming and facilitates the effectiveness of our work. Indeed, when describing social justice education more broadly, one scholar wrote, “To be most effective, [it] requires an examination of systems of power and oppression combined with a prolonged emphasis on social change and student agency in and outside of the classroom” (Hackman, 2005, p. 104). 

Across IDP’s offerings with various audiences, we find evidence that participants are better equipped to realize strategic change perspectives, opportunities, and organizations they belong to.

Changing Perspective

Critical self-reflection is a fundamental process for those engaging in strategic change. Intergroup dialogue programs like IDP’s offer participants the opportunity to reflect on their own perspectives and experiences and to interact with a diverse range of peers while cultivating skills for creating change in their communities (Nagda, Kim, & Truelove, 2004). This multifaceted engagement with issues related to social identity and societal hierarchies is often enthralling, though the broad scope and dynamic nature of this content mean that there is always more to explore after the IDP workshop or course has ended. According to our survey data, students, faculty, and staff who participated in a workshop with IDP are excited to continue this exploration, with a majority reporting that they left the session feeling more eager to learn about how systems of privilege and oppression have affected their own experiences

This self-reflection can serve as a perpetual source of motivation, “as it knocks teachers and students out of complacency and steers them in the direction of the solution instead of the problem” (Hackman, 2005, p. 107). Those who participated in a workshop with IDP were able to begin thinking about potential solutions to existing inequities; one peer mentor wrote that they planned to seek out “training to work with advisees with cognitive/learning disabilities,” while another undergraduate participant described their plan to “engage in more difficult conversations about beliefs,” which they thought would be helpful in their efforts related to an upcoming election.

Changing Opportunities

Participating in intergroup dialogue helps individuals contextualize their own experience within societal systems of power, privilege, and oppression (Frantell et al., 2019). All of the roles we occupy – being a student, an educator, an athlete, a friend, a daughter, an ally – are performed in the context of these existing hierarchies (Butler, 2004). A majority of residential life staff members indicated that the skills covered during their session with IDP – dialogic skills like active listening, strategic questioning, and affirming others – were relevant to their role on campus. Indeed, residential life staff who use these skills with their colleagues and students living on campus can create numerous opportunities for genuine connection, relationship-building, and growth.

One thing that residential life staff members are asked to do is provide meaningful programming for residents, and many staff members left their IDP sessions feeling enthusiastic about offering programs that would enable students to engage with social justice topics. For example, one RA wanted to “Attend community events and programs put on by communities different from my own, and put on more cross-programs with other program houses to build bridges”, while another planned to offer programming “that introduces residents to identities different from their own and gives them a space to share their own identities.” Previous research demonstrates that being part of an intergroup dialogue program can also foster a greater sense of responsibility for working toward social justice (Nagda et al., 2009), and these plans represent one way that participants recognize this responsibility within their role as residential life staff.

Changing Organizations

Colleges and universities are increasingly “being charged with cultivating students’ commitment to issues related to social justice” (Mayhew & Fernández, 2007, p. 55), and student clubs and organizations are one cocurricular avenue for this work. Following a semester in IDP’s course on intergroup dialogue (EDUC 2610), undergraduate students reported being significantly more likely to join a group on campus aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion. For some students, the course increased their awareness about these groups and their potential to spur change. For example, reflecting on their experience with the course, one student wrote “I learned that there are many different paths you can take to incite change for an issue that you are passionate about and a lot of opportunities to do so at Cornell.”

Consistent with existing research on other intergroup dialogue courses (Nagda et al., 2004), undergraduates who complete EDUC 2610 felt significantly more confident in their ability to promote diversity at the end of the semester. One way this can emerge is through their involvement with student organizations, as students reported being significantly more likely to suggest ways to promote inclusion within a group they belong to. Describing their plan, one student wrote, “I plan to engage in meaningful dialogue with the professional fraternity I am a part of – asking the members strategic questions regarding our recruitment process and how it may be limiting student’s access to opportunities based on their social identities as a result of unconscious biases. I plan on proposing a rubric during recruitment.” Having engaged in critical self-reflection, practiced dialogic communication tools, and explored inequities and biases at individual, interpersonal, and structural levels, EDUC 2610 students are equipped to collaboratively work with others to create more diverse and inclusive organizations on campus and beyond.