Transforming Our Critical Conversations

Bringing people together

Transforming Our Critical Conversations

Ximena Zúñiga’s pioneering scholarship on intergroup dialogue has made the UMass College of Education a center for this innovative social justice practice.

Montage portrait of Professor of Social Justice Education Ximena Zuniga

For more than 30 years, UMass Amherst social justice education professor Ximena Zúñiga has worked to develop and expand the practice of intergroup dialogue (IGD), both in and out of academia. In this era of dangerous division, it has become more crucial than ever. “Increasingly, we have less opportunities to engage in real conversations about difficult issues. The times we are living in exacerbate this situation,” Zúñiga observes. “Between technology and the social and political polarization in the country, people seem to be much more anxious to engage others in conversation.”

Intergroup dialogue is a critical practice that invites people to explore issues of difference through facilitated meetings. It encourages listening and voicing across social and cultural divides, fosters shared understanding and learning, engages social identities, and cultivates social justice commitments. It is intended to inspire collaborative action against social inequities, reimagine what is possible, and forge critical connections within and across communities.

IGD is a crucial part of social justice education, but it may be used in any educational setting to encourage conversations and critical connections in order to create change in a community. It’s a profoundly effective approach for bringing people together, but it is also demanding. “It really requires time and a different way of looking at the world.” Zúñiga explains. “It can be invigorating, it can be difficult—there’s emotional and intellectual work involved in listening to and voicing different points of view. It requires cultural humility and self-reflexivity; you have to own that you may not have the answer.”

Professor Ximena Zuniga

Zúñiga’s role in the development of the intergroup dialogue model in higher education stretches back to her days as an education doctoral student at the University of Michigan in the 1980s. While teaching undergraduate courses in women’s studies, she found herself taking the role of bridge builder and facilitator in many settings—classrooms, faculty and graduate student meetings, anti-racism movement meetings— at a time of heightened racial conflict, when conversations became very heated and painful. 

The university had a grant to develop an undergraduate initiative on intergroup relations and conflict, which evolved into the Program on Intergroup Relations. At the suggestion of a colleague, Zúñiga applied for the program coordination position, was hired, and became director once the program became an integral part of the institution.

To conceptualize and develop the model and curriculum, Zúñiga brought teams together to craft blended methodologies from popular education, intergroup education, social justice education, peace and conflict studies, feminist pedagogy and social movement education. Intergroup dialogue also draws from the work of Martin Buber, John Dewey, Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and women of color intersectional feminism. 

Zúñiga approached the work with a lot of intentionality, “thinking through, how do we scaffold things in a way that supports skill building, knowledge development, getting to know each other, voicing, listening, wrestling with difficult questions, and moving away from debate.”

A group of participants at an intergroup dialogue workshop stand in a circle

Zúñiga’s intergroup dialogue methodology calls for small groups of 14 to 16 people, evenly split between individuals of different groups (defined by race, gender, sexuality, etc.). These groups can be structured as inter-group and intra-group conversations. For instance, the college recently offered four interracial dialogues for different populations, including women only and all queer & trans* people. There are two facilitators, also representing the different groups involved. It then progresses through four stages.

The first stage involves group building, storytelling, and basic dialogue skill building, such as voicing, listening, interrogating personal assumptions, and reflection. In the second stage, participants explore their social identities and personal values. The intention is to support, affirm, and amplify different voices—particularly marginalized voices—through reading, writing and intra- and intergroup conversations. For instance, in an interracial dialogue, participants may “begin to understand more clearly how the webs of racism and resistance impact how and why we may engage differently and similarly with these issues,” Zúñiga explains. In stage three, they explore difficult topics. “In interracial dialogues at UMass, we examine race, racism, and racial equity on campus, immigration issues, and personal and collective resistance for racial justice,” Zúñiga adds. In the last stage people explore their own personal commitments to create change. To build capacity for change making, students collaborate on small intergroup action projects that meet regularly outside class for 4-5 weeks.

In the years since developing the intergroup dialogue method, Zúñiga’s scholarship has focused on conceptualizing and fine tuning the theory and methodology through qualitative, quantitative and mixed research methods, while simultaneously advancing social justice education theory and practice. For the first 10 to 15 years of her work, she focused on how to position this embodied and non-traditional approach to issues of diversity and equity in higher education. “Through varied action research methodologies, we have developed new ways of framing this practice, new ways of inviting people to engage in difficult conversation, and new ways of scaffolding activities and learning modalities to encourage people to engage with the issues.”

Through varied action research methodologies, we have developed new ways of framing this practice, new ways of inviting people to engage in difficult conversation, and new ways of scaffolding activities and learning modalities to encourage people to engage with the issues.

Ximena Zúñiga

In the second phase of her research, Zúñiga has focused on participant learning outcomes, including a national study funded by the W.T Grant and Ford Foundations and reported in Dialogues Across Differences: Practice, Theory and Research on Intergroup Dialogue. Using an field experiment and mixed research methodology, she and her collaborators saw significant change between random trials, in terms of critical cognition, relationship building, and how the participants envision alliances and social action roles. They also noticed that critical empathy and positive emotions seems to be powerful motivators for engaging collaboratively in social action. “The more empathy and positive emotions students described in final papers and post dialogue interviews,” Zúñiga explains, “the more likely they were to express commitments to take social justice action.”

Two participants in an intergroup dialogue workshop high five

Most recently, Zúñiga has been researching the role of facilitators in intergroup dialogue—what they bring to the experience and how they guide the process. “Facilitators are really the backbone of IGD,” she asserts. “The co-facilitation team is actually holding space for participants. There’s an art to this and it takes practice.”

Zúñiga is also undertaking a study of College of Education social justice education alumni, who were involved in the intergroup dialogue course sequence in the last 18 years, to examine the professional impact of leading intergroup dialogues. She hopes to see how they are using intergroup dialogue in their current professional roles in K-16 education, community groups, and nonprofits. In the surveys and interviews she asks how alumni experienced the training sequence, what they recall from it, how they are incorporating intergroup dialogue practices in their workplaces, what kind of support they’ve received, and how it has impacted their professional roles.

At UMass, Zúñiga provides opportunities for both graduate students and undergraduates to learn and engage in intergroup dialogue methods. She offers Theory, Practice and Research of IGD in Schools, Colleges and Communities for graduate students as well as a multi-section undergraduate course in IGD, co-led by graduate student facilitators. Zúñiga also offers a graduate course in the form of four intensive weekend-long seminars focusing on the different manifestations of oppression, where participants discuss readings and concepts, and engage in activities like storytelling, affinity groups, case studies, and action planning. “It’s a nice foundation course for people who are going to be teaching about social justice issues, because you’re trying to model how to bridge theory and practice, how to bring people to the table, how to ask good questions, how support and affirm marginalized voices, and how to bring joy to the room.”

Ximena Zuniga with keynote speaker Jamila Lyiscott and co-organizer Marcella Runell Hall

In June of this year, UMass Amherst had the opportunity to host the Third Biennial Conference on Intergroup Dialogue (IGD), treating two hundred fifty participants—students, educators, and IGD scholars—to a deep dive into intergroup dialogue. As described in the conference materials, it offered “an opportunity to share the collective stories, knowledge, skills, and practices that illustrate the catalyst power of dialogue across differences for envisioning and cultivating possibility, hope, and solidarity in these turbulent times.”

Zúñiga was the co-chair of the conference planning committee, along with Marcella Runell Hall, a graduate of the social justice education doctoral program and currently the vice president for student life and dean of students at Mount Holyoke College.

By design, the conference was accessible to the educational community, with reduced or free registration rates for the Five College community and area educators. The featured speakers included performance poet Magdalena Gómez, UMass Amherst social justice education professor Jamila Lyiscott, Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, and Barbara J. Love, retired professor of social justice education. In addition to extensive panel discussions, the conference offered trainings on IGD practices like the LARA listening method, the power of vulnerability in facilitation, and storytelling. 

The IGD conference gave participants an opportunity to create strong connections with each other around their work. “The highlight of the conference was the incredible sense of community. It is such a testament to the power of the intergroup dialogue model,” observed co-chair, Hall. “We are living in a time that is extraordinarily polarized, and yet there is a strong desire to connect, to seek understanding and to be understood.”

We are living in a time that is extraordinarily polarized, and yet there is a strong desire to connect, to seek understanding and to be understood.

Marcella Runell Hall

Conference planner Kristen Luschen, professor and dean of multicultural education and inclusion at Hampshire College, felt the conference had an energizing effect, motivating those who attended to expand this work in their lives, workplaces, and communities. “[The speakers] framed the importance of the dialogue efforts in this particular social, political, and educational moment and demonstrated how critical it is for us to strengthen and deepen our dialogue practices—and our critical and compassionate engagement with each other—in broader, innovative, and creative ways.”

Three images from the 3rd Biennial Conference on Intergroup Dialogue

For Zúñiga, this will include bringing this work back home to the College of Education. “There is a clear need for building IGD communities of practice, especially in the Northeast. We have many in-house experts at UMass and in Western Massachusetts, including many SJE alums in leadership roles. In short, we have the capacity to grow and serve as hub, but don’t yet have the right structure.” She is working to develop a UMass and the Five Colleges community of practice to provide training and development opportunities for beginner and seasoned practitioners. “I think people are very thirsty for connecting and learning new information,” she asserts, “for support, skill building, new ideas, and reframing dialogue practices across differences.”

I think people are very thirsty for connecting and learning new information; for support, skill building, new ideas, and reframing dialogue practices across differences.

Ximena Zúñiga