Intergroup Dialogues: Naming the Unnamed

There's something new happening on Tuesday afternoons this semester. It's Intergroup Dialogue and Leadership Development, a two-credit course sponsored by the Weissman Center for Leadership that encourages students to explore communication styles, stereotypes, perceptions, and group dynamics. Dean of the College Beverly Daniel Tatum says that by the end of the semester participants should be able to facilitate groups across campus, as well as take what they've learned beyond an academic setting. In future semesters, Tatum hopes to be able to offer more sections of the class.

It was Tatum's idea to bring intergroup dialogue to Mount Holyoke. The program is based on a concept developed by UMass lecturer in education Ximena Zuniga. The primary goal, Zuniga has written, "is to foster deeper understanding among groups by exploring attitudes, feelings, and perceptions of one another." Zuniga developed the program at the University of Michigan before bringing it to UMass. Intergroup dialogues might bring together people of color and white people; blacks and Jews; men and women; Asians and Asian Americans; and other such groupings.

Mount Holyoke's program is unique in bringing the model to a small college, since most intergroup dialogue programs are at large universities.

The course is facilitated by Tatum, Assistant Dean of Students Lisa Werkmeister Rozas, and Anita Magovern, adviser to the Catholic community and assistant dean of students. Says Tatum, "Styles of communication vary between cultural groups, and it's very important for our students to learn how to interact effectively in a pluralistic society. That requires self awareness as well as awareness of others."

In one class meeting, students were asked to discuss objects that represented groups to which they belonged. The class ended up talking about the things they had chosen not to share. "It was a hard discussion, but it helped a lot," Magovern recalls. "One of the things we always try to do is to go back after every discussion and ask, 'What just happened?'"

"The best thing I'm getting out of it," says senior Ruth Lopez, "is not only knowing how to have dialogue about particular issues, but how to have productive dialogue--by practicing active listening, then reflecting, then answering. We're learning to be aware of what we're saying, but also how we're saying it." That, says Werkmeister Rozas, is the key question faced by the class: "How are we able to listen to others and have them feel validated, even if we completely disagree with them?"

Magovern agrees. "We keep coming back to the question of how to validate the other person's experience, and then share your difference of opinion. How do you let the other person know she's been listened to?" She has learned from the class, too. "I find it exciting just to be exploring these things, naming the unnamed."

Lopez has already put her new knowledge to work. As a member of the International Women's Day panel, she heard one of her questions misinterpreted. "I knew how to say, 'I'd like to go back and clarify,'" she says. "I had to smile, because I realized I was implementing what I'd been learning in class for the last month and a half."