Why Intergroup Dialogue Should Be Part of Every K-12 School

Alison Yin/EdSource

Schools can help students hone their social skills and talk about their emotions when they return to campus.

As our country seems increasingly polarized, a new study from the University of California, Berkeley suggests that just getting people from opposite countries to talk to each other isn’t enough to bridge the gaps that exist between us. separate.

This is because ad hoc conversations are not enough. What we need is sustained intergroup dialogue that begins early in each child’s education.

Intergroup dialogue is a mediated face-to-face discussion involving members of two or more social identity groups that aims to establish new levels of intergroup understanding, connection, and action. It involves a four-step process that begins with community building and ends with tough group conversations about society’s most polarizing issues.

Colleges, including UCLA and the University of Michigan, have held Intergroup Dialogue courses for years. But it shouldn’t start in college. Students should be having these conversations long before they begin to cross the threshold into adulthood. Schools have a duty to help people from diverse backgrounds understand each other. More importantly, schools should create these spaces because school should be a way to learn about people, not just subjects.

In our work teaching, facilitating and participating in intergroup dialogues, we have seen students recognize bias and recognize how they are contributing to it for the first time in their lives. And, contrary to what some may fear, the conversations in the intergroup dialogues do not seek to target a group of students or to make them feel guilty or hate each other. In fact, we have seen cross-group dialogues push students to question the conditions and systems that harm them all.

Schools can implement intergroup dialogues in a number of ways that do not require additional funding, including after-school programs, a series of all-student retreats like those hosted by Orange County Schools, or by offering them as an elective. Intergroup dialogues can also be incorporated into courses such as civics, sociology, or social studies; or even improve the existing curriculum as they contribute to critical thinking skills. For example, for younger students, teachers can assign or read age-appropriate books on race, class, and difference and have students talk and ask questions about the characters or share their thoughts on the experiences of the characters. With a few modifications, teachers can adapt existing classroom activities to build intergroup understanding. For example, ‘show and tell’, which we all remember, can be replaced with ‘culture chest’, an activity in which students share and discuss an object related to their culture instead of an object from all days.

Moreover, this responsibility should not rest solely with the teachers, who we already know do a lot of work. For student-only retreats, schools could call on experts. Another option could be to pair the dialogues with colleges and train undergraduate students to lead the dialogues, a model used in other parts of the country. Older students (grades 11/12) can be trained to facilitate cross-group dialogues with younger students (grades 9/10) – in what is called a “quasi-peer” model – and potentially gain course credits for their animation. In addition to learning the concepts of intergroup dialogue through their training course, students also learn leadership, classroom management, and teaching skills. With a little creativity, there are so many opportunities.

While we have many ideas for how schools can start implementing intergroup dialogues, we know it won’t be easy. But we think it’s worth it.

We are not naive enough to think that intergroup dialogue will end America’s racial problems or immediately turn the most racist, sexist and fearful Americans into supporters of fairness and equality. But it can be a first step in getting people to start having difficult conversations about hate, sameness, and difference early enough that we can try to prevent some of the worst things before they start.


Kiana Foxx is a third-year doctoral candidate in UCLA’s Higher Education and Organizational Change Program, has taught anti-racism and prejudice reduction workshops, and taught intergroup dialogue for over two years.

Ashton Pemberton is a fourth-year doctoral student in UCLA’s Higher Education and Organizational Change Program and serves as an on-air contributor for racial justice topics.

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