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Talking about race

Pilot program encourages dialogue

By Jean-Ann Kubler
On March 26, 2010

With registration for fall 2010 just around the corner, students thinking about adding a little extra variety to their schedules should consider becoming involved with the campus' Intergroup Relations (IGR) pilot program.

Now in its fifth semester of classes, IGR is adapted from a program that began at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1988.

First instituted in a time of heightened racial tensions on the Michigan campus, IGR sets out to advance student understanding of diversity and respect for peers from different backgrounds. The program also aims to teach students about conflict management and how to be actively engaged with these issues on a diverse campus.

The IGR program was brought to the college by Assistant Professor of sociology Kristie Ford. Professor Ford, whose research focuses on race, gender and social justice issues, was engaged with IGR at the University of Michigan as a graduate student.

IGR consists of a series of classes that train students to facilitate dialogues about race with a racially diverse group of their peers, or, in some cases, a group of peers that share one identity (such as white racial identity dialogue and multiracial identity dialogue).

Race and Power, a class which Ford taught for the first time in spring 2008, was the first step toward bringing the pilot program to campus. In the Race and Power class, students develop a core knowledge base and foundational skills related to engaging in dialogues about race.

The second class in the series, Racial Identity Theory and Praxis, focuses more intensely on the theoretical knowledge and facilitation skills needed to become a race dialogue peer-facilitator. Students who successfully complete the second class are eligible to be considered as peer-facilitators for the Race Dialogue Classes.

This spring, three sections of intergroup dialogue classes, called People of Color/White People, were offered.

Co-facilitated by students who completed Race and Power, as well as Racial Identity Theory and Praxis, these dialogue classes offer an innovative learning experience that demands both intellectual and emotional involvement from the students.

"These classes aren't like a typical course where you're just studying the content. It's a very important balance of content and process. It's important to dialogue, to listen, to combine the intellectual with the emotional and the personal," Professor Lei Ouyang Bryant said.

Bryant, an assistant professor of music and ethnomusicologist, is heading the IGR program along with Sarah Goodwin (English), Sue Layden (Student Affairs), Peter McCarthy (social work) and Dan Curley (classics), while Ford is on sabbatical.

Each dialogue class has a faculty/staff coach, though the weekly dialogues are led by student facilitators. Maintaining a student-only environment is meant to encourage openness and honesty in the dialogues.

Grading and end-of-semester evaluations are completed by the faculty/staff coaches, who also meet with the peer-facilitators on a weekly basis throughout the semester. Additionally, student facilitators enroll in a three credit Practicum seminar while facilitating a dialogue for ongoing training and support.

There is an incredibly diverse range of faculty/staff involved with the program. The music, English, classics, sociology, anthropology and social work departments are all represented, and Student Affairs is represented by Dean of Students Rochelle Calhoun and Associate Dean Sue Layden.

"Not every faculty member involved is a coach, but everyone is incredibly supportive and helpful in furthering the program's goals" Bryant said.

Commenting on her own experience with IGR, Bryant said, "I'm an ethnomusicologist, so this is not the first thing that people might see me doing outside of the department, but it's been incredibly rewarding. It's a different kind of engagement than you see in other classes and areas of study."

Students involved with the program have reacted similarly to their time with IGR. One student, who chose to remain anonymous because of the personal nature of the comment, said, "I didn't realize how ignorant I was until I became involved with IGR. I don't think there's anything more satisfying than realizing that you didn't know anything about a topic, and taking steps to educate yourself, both emotionally and intellectually."

"It's rewarding to see the students go through the process, particularly with the student facilitators, who really have to push themselves and, in the end, grow so much because of the experience," Bryant said.

The increasing diversity of the college's campus makes it an ideal place for a pilot program like IGR to grow.

"We need everybody on campus to really push themselves to figure out how to live in this multicultural society. How can we create a multicultural society?" Bryant said.

Students as well as faculty/staff interested in becoming involved with IGR can attend one of the single-session dialogues held on campus during the spring. Dates for these dialogues will be posted around campus as they approach.

For registration purposes, the IGR peer-facilitated race dialogues can be found on the Interdisciplinary section of the Master Schedule.

Students who are interested in enrolling in ID351 Racial Identities: Theory and Praxis to become peer facilitators should contact Sarah Goodwin or Winston Grady-Willis, who will be team-teaching it, for information about pre-requisites. Students with no previous experience can enroll in Race and Power or in one of the dialogues in Spring 2011.

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