Intergroup Dialogue

Intergroup Dialogue: One tool for social justice education and action

Mari Ng Mizobe

January 2011

In Lee Mun Wah’s widely acclaimed documentary film, Last Chance for Eden (2002), a young African American woman wipes tears off her face, sharing her frustrations of encountering institutional oppressions in her workplace on a daily basis. “I’m trying to figure out who I am, who you want me to be, who you see, how not to offend you, how to know how far to offend you before I lose my job… Just feel it [the pain of experiencing institutional oppressions] with me. Don’t explain it to me.” This film follows a group of nine women and men as they spend a weekend together in Ukiah, California, examining the impact of racism, sexism and heterosexism on their lives in the workplace, in their personal relationships, within their families and communities.

Lee Mun Wah uses intergroup dialogue to engage this group in an intense experience of exploration, understanding and transformation on critical issues of social injustice. Educators, social workers, community leaders, activists, social scientists and other practitioners use intergroup dialogue in multiple contexts around the world, as one tool in their pursuit of social justice. What is intergroup dialogue, and where is it used? How can intergroup dialogue be used as one tool to support social justice education and action? These are broad questions, and there is extensive practice and research on intergroup dialogue that are beyond the scope of this article. However, I provide a brief overview of the definitions of intergroup dialogue, give examples of its use in community-based, government and educational contexts, and outline its key principles, objectives, and some findings on its outcomes, to demonstrate that intergroup dialogue can be one tool for social justice education and action. I also offer some ideas for what an intergroup dialogue program might look like in a school setting, and conclude with some questions to consider and references for learning more about intergroup dialogue.



The term dialogue is often used in day-to-day conversations, so I will first clarify what I mean by intergroup dialogue in the context of social justice work. Bohm (1996), one of the most cited writers in fields related to dialogue work, notes that the term dialogue comes from the Greek term dialogos dia meaning “through” and logos meaning “the word”. Dialogue, then, speaks to the exchange through words. At its most fundamental level, dialogue can refer to parties coming together with the goal of increased mutual understanding. Many of us, individually and in groups, engage in what we might consider dialogue in our daily lives. As a professional tool, dialogue is most commonly used in peacebuilding work as a structured, intergroup process between members of conflicted societies (Tint, 2008). In the multidisciplinary field of peace studies, peacebuilding refers to the efforts in pursuit of social justice at all levels of society. Peacebuilding is distinct from peacemaking, which is the attempt to prevent or mitigate direct episodes of violence through non-violent means (Christie, Wagner and Winter, 2001). For example, an educator delivering a curriculum to unpack racial oppressions is undertaking peacebuilding work, whereas an educator trying to stop a schoolyard fight that began with a racial slur is engaged in peacemaking.
After an extensive review of intergroup dialogue work in various community-based and academic settings, Dessel, Rogge and Garlington (2006) provide a definition of intergroup dialogue as a peacebuilding tool:
a process designed to involve individuals and groups in an exploration of societal issues about which views differ, often to the extent that polarization and conflict occur… [I]ntergroup dialogue in the public arena is a facilitated community experience designed to provide a safe yet communal space to express anger and indignation about injustice. Participants are engaged in, witness, and are affected by a facilitated community experience (p. 304).
More specifically, Schoem and colleagues (2001) define intergroup dialogue as “a form of democratic practice, engagement, problem solving, and education involving face-to-face, focused, facilitated, and confidential discussions occurring over time between two or more groups of people defined by their different social identities” (p. 6). Ethnicity, race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, mental ability, physical ability, age, socio-economic class, and/or other social characteristics can broadly define these social identity groups. In Last Chance for Eden, for example, Lee Mun Wah and his co-facilitator, Linda Compton, facilitated an intergroup dialogue that focused primarily on institutional oppressions based on racial, gender and sexual identities.


Conflicted communities worldwide employ intergroup dialogue at various phases of social tensions to build understanding between parties and create possibilities for movement and transformation. Intergroup dialogue is used in a variety of settings ranging from non-profit community-based organizations, government to educational institutions. Some examples include:

  1. Fostering understanding among community members, as in Palestine and Israel (Reich and Halabi, 2004)
  2. Rebuilding and reconciliation in post-conflict societies, as in South Africa or Rwanda (Villa-Vicencio and Savage, 2001)
  3. Healing emotional scars long after a conflict has ended, as between descendants of Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators (Bar-On, 1999; 2006)
  4. Promoting education and action to address institutional oppressions, as in university campuses in the United States (Zúñiga and others 2007)
  5. Engaging citizens in addressing public issues, such as the Citizens’ Dialogue on Canada’s Future (Saxena, 2003)


Intergroup dialogue can be one tool through which educators can teach about social justice issues, and support individual and collective transformation. We can explore how intergroup dialogue can support social justice education and action by examining some of the key principles, objectives, and demonstrated outcomes of intergroup dialogue.

Key principles

Key principles that underlie intergroup dialogue can support individual and collective education and transformation towards social justice. Some key principles include the following:

•   Positive intergroup contact: Allport’s contact hypothesis (1954) is one of the most proven ideas in intergroup relations (Brewer and Brown, 1998). Contact hypothesis proposes that one of the most successful ways to reduce intergroup conflict, prejudice and enmity is through positive intergroup contact. Positive intergroup contact requires equal status, acquaintance potential and interdependency between the groups. The hope is that through positive contact experiences in intergroup dialogue, participants engage in ways that shift the relationship of enmity and injustice.

•   Relationships as the basis for transformation: Both the content and process of intergroup dialogue focus on relationships between participants, as the focal point for transformation among the conflicted groups (Lederach, 1997; Saunders, 1999; Schoem and others, 2001). As it is an intentional process that seeks to create deep understanding and transformative experiences for participants, intergroup dialogue provides a structure in which participants explore how their thoughts, emotions, consciousness, beliefs and narratives diverge, and how they can come together to create shared meanings.

•   Listening and inquiry: Intergroup dialogue is different from the more adversarial forms of communication, such as discussion or debate, which are common in mainstream North American society. Both discussion and debate imply a passing back and forth of ideas in argumentative form, in pursuit of truth by one party. Dialogue, according to Saunders, a major proponent of its use in conflicted societies, is “a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen deeply enough to be changed by what they learn” (1999, p. 82). Many practitioners and researchers (such as Chasin and others, 1996; Ellinor and Gerard, 1998; Cissna and Anderson, 2002) have also written about the importance of such qualities as listening, curiosity, reflection, vulnerability, transparency and authenticity in dialogue processes, in order to support individual and social transformation. When people suspend their assumptions and judgments, share their opinions without hostility, and create shared meaning rather than search for facts, they are better able to engage in “collective thought” that moves them more creatively in new directions to address social issues (Bohm, 1996).

•   Participatory and inclusive decision-making: Many cultural and discourse traditions have long valued dialogue as a communication practice to support inquiry and explore shared concerns, and have led to its development as a peacebuilding tool. One of the main philosophical roots of intergroup dialogue is the ideology of participatory and inclusive decision-making. Particularly when used in educational settings, intergroup dialogue also often draws from philosophical, cultural and pedagogical traditions that led to the democratic, experiential, and intergroup education movements in North America and the United Kingdom during the twentieth century (McGee Banks, 2005; Stephan and Stephan, 2001; Zúñiga, Nagda and Sevig, 2002). Intergroup dialogue creates a democratic process that acknowledges and respects all parties, a context that reinforces the notion that change is possible, and transforms relationships toward positive social change. Through such changes, intergroup dialogue attempts to influence public decision-making, and produce new, previously unexplored results (Schoem, 2003).

Key Objectives

Practitioners use intergroup dialogue in different contexts, often sharing such key principles but with variations in delivery. These can include variations in participant numbers, process duration, meeting frequency, facilitator roles, content or process focus and post-dialogue follow-up. Specific group goals may also vary across different intergroup dialogue processes. However, intergroup dialogue processes usually include certain general stages: setting the environment, developing a common foundation, exploring questions and issues, and moving from dialogue to social action. These stages support the pursuit of key overarching objectives of intergroup dialogue. These objectives may be termed differently but generally include the following.

•   Consciousness raising: One of the core objectives in intergroup dialogue is what Zúñiga and others (2007) call “consciousness raising”. Consciousness raising draws from the work of the educator Freire (1970), who conceptualized this as an educational process through which members of oppressed groups come to understand the history and circumstances of their oppression. Intergroup dialogue expands this process to raise the consciousness of all participants in the dialogue, who are members of both target and non-target groups of institutional oppressions. Intergroup dialogue attempts to raise the consciousness of participants through parallel and interrelated processes of developing their knowledge of social systems, and their awareness of their personal and social identity within these larger societal structures. Interpersonal, institutional, and societal privilege and power dynamics as well as the groups’ histories and present environment shapes and affects intergroup relationships and the respective statuses of the groups in the larger society. The integration of both cognitive and affective explorations helps intergroup dialogue participants understand how and why certain patterns of intergroup dominance and subordination exist, and how these patterns affect them personally. Participants build an understanding of and empathy for the narratives of others in the dialogue group – not only the positions or opinions expressed, but also the underlying assumptions, values, needs and fears – and in the process, build a clearer understanding of their own assumptions, values, needs and fears, as well as their personal relationship to the issues being explored.

•   Relationship building: Members of conflicted parties often take positions or “sides” on contentious issues, but may not have nor take the opportunities to interact directly with each other to address their differences. When unaddressed in situations of injustice, differences can lead to enemy images and dehumanization of the “other” (Volkan, 1997; Moses, 1990). Once formed, enemy images tend to become deeply embedded and resistant to change, perpetuating and intensifying the conflict, and posing obstacles to conflict reduction and resolution (Gross Stein, 1996). As such, intergroup dialogue addresses relationships as a focus for transformation among conflicted parties. A key feature of relationship building is the explicit recognition that relationships between participants in the dialogue group are likely to be impacted by the asymmetrical relationships and history of conflict or potential conflicts between the social identity groups involved (Maoz, 2001). Consequently, intergroup dialogue focuses on how relationships occur among people in full recognition of their social group identities. Unlike “feel-good” types of encounters that attempt to promote understanding by avoiding, masking, or overcoming social injustices, intergroup dialogue recognizes that communicating about and, if possible, working through conflict and social injustice are both positive and necessary parts of the intergroup encounter. Such conflicts can become valuable opportunities for participants to engage in heart-to-heart conversations and to discover new ways of thinking and relating across difference, building bridges between and among individuals across group boundaries (Zúñiga, 2003).

•   Capacity building: Because intergroup dialogue is a process by which peacebuilding occurs slowly through relational change rather than structural change, small groups of individuals in an intergroup dialogue process can find it challenging to address larger structural issues that they may be unlikely to impact in immediate or significant ways. This can become frustrating, especially for participants who are invested in societal shifts. For deep, sustainable peacebuilding to occur, intergroup dialogue must be linked to action and change, at the personal, interpersonal, intra- and intergroup levels, that address the injustices and institutional oppressions that have perpetuated the conflicts. The earlier objectives of intergroup dialogue (consciousness raising and relationship building) support the participants in developing their capacities to enact change (Zúñiga and others, 2007). By supporting new ways of thinking about oneself and others and the social structure in which both exist (consciousness raising), intergroup dialogue promotes thinking about and acting for social change. The process of building bridges across and within differences in social identity groups (relationship building) can provide participants with a sense of shared responsibility for challenging institutional oppressions and creating more socially just communities. In envisioning and then taking action, participants create opportunities to continue to learn and to carry the skills and commitments they have developed in intergroup dialogue to settings outside and beyond the dialogue.


Are intergroup dialogues as effective as a peacebuilding tool in practice, as they are intended to be in theory? The following are some examples of outcomes that researchers have demonstrated.

•   In a non-profit organization: The National Conference for Community and Justice, a non-partisan organization based in the United States and dedicated to anti-bias, organized and facilitated a series of Interfaith Dialogue Forums in Knoxville, Tennessee (USA) in 2003 and 2004. Faith-based groups were an integral part of the local community, offering many community members with places for both convergence and divergence in understanding their own lives and the greater society. Forum topics included interfaith perspectives on racism, religion in government and same-sex marriage. Through anecdotal, informal and self-selected evaluations, as well as phone- and letter-based feedback from participants, Dessel, Rogge and Garlington (2006) found that these intergroup dialogues provided the participants with valuable opportunities to examine biases, highlight differences and similarities among groups and individuals, and consider possibilities for social change.

•   In long-term intractable conflict: Some of the most widely known and studied intergroup dialogue work has been the international to local co-existence efforts among members of Arab, Palestinian and Jewish communities. Research on intergroup dialogue work among these communities illustrates a mixture of positive and negative outcomes. For example, Alatar and colleagues (2004) surveyed members of 28 Arab-Jewish-Palestinian intergroup dialogue groups in Canada and the United States, in order to examine approaches to intergroup dialogue and to understand group challenges and needs. The researchers found that dialogue participants expanded their activity in public education and outreach initiatives related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On the basis of these findings, they recommended organizing national networks of dialogue groups, expanding training and other resources for intergroup dialogue, and using intergroup dialogue to address conflicts between these ethnic groups. In another study, Abu-Nimer (1999; 2004) assessed intervention models of the six largest Arab-Jewish encounter programs in Israel, using quantitative surveys, qualitative interviews, action research and longitudinal studies. Abu-Nimer examined intervention processes that involved cognitive, affective, positive contact and socializing experiences, many of which included intergroup dialogue. Although both Jewish and Arab participants reported some success, Abu-Nimer highlighted important limitations in intergroup dialogue design and implementation, such as the imbalance of power distribution between Arab and Jewish participants. For example, Arab participants had to speak in Hebrew rather than Arabic, limiting their participation in the dialogues. Both Abu-Nimer (1999) and Alatar and colleagues (2004) found that the dominant Jewish participants were more interested in understanding and relationship-building, whereas the non-dominant Arab and Palestinian participants sought action-oriented outcomes from intergroup dialogue and were discouraged when they did not experience social change.

•   In academic settings: The Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan  uses intergroup dialogue groups as an approach to multicultural education. The Program has conducted a longitudinal review of more than 4000 university students who participated in diversity-focused intergroup dialogue experiences at nine public universities in the US. This review suggests that participating students improved their analytical skills, cultural awareness, and ability to think pluralistically and take the perspective of others (Hurtado, 2005). As a result of such studies indicating positive outcomes of intergroup dialogue in educational institutions, several social work training programs in Canada and the United States have integrated intergroup dialogue into their curriculum as a pedagogical method for preparing students for professional practice that is culturally competent and oriented towards social justice (Hurtado, 2005; Nagda and others, 1999; Nagda andZúñiga, 2003).

•   Overall findings: In their review of research on intergroup dialogue, Schoem and Hurtado (2001) summarized that although more work is necessary in regard to developing methods of evaluation, several studies have documented positive changes in program participants, processes, and outcomes based on participation in intergroup dialogues. Their review indicates that such positive participant changes include increased personal and social awareness about identity and difference; increased knowledge about social identity groups other than their own and institutional inequalities; greater commitment to social responsibility and action; reduced stereotyping; more complex thinking; improved communication skills; and greater capacities to respond to conflict.


Enough evidence suggests that intergroup dialogue can be one of many approaches in a dynamic and evolving toolbox for social justice education and action. Below are some ideas for possible ways that intergroup dialogue can be used in a school setting. As with any peacebuilding tool and effort, however, educators must use intergroup dialogue intentionally and adapt it as necessary in order to respond to the needs of the given cultural context, and the students, teachers, families and community members involved.

•   Among students, in the curriculum: Teachers could use intergroup dialogue as a tool to deliver or complement curriculum content. For example, intergroup dialogue may be particularly useful in addressing the Prescribed Learning Outcomes (PLOs) of the Social Justice 12 curriculum (BC Ministry of Education, 2008). The Ministry provides three major PLOs in this Social Justice curriculum for grade 12 students: students are expected to demonstrate growing capacities to “define social justice”, “recognize and analyze social injustice”, and “move towards a socially just world” (p. 12). Teachers can use intergroup dialogue principles and methods, for example, to bring the students together in a safe, confidential environment where they can explore potentially divisive social justice issues, explore ideas with each other about what social justice means to them, share their lived experiences of social justice or injustice with each other, and then develop and implement an action plan to address a selected social justice issue. Intergroup dialogue could also be adapted to address other areas of social studies, such as First Nations Studies, History, Law and Sustainable Resources.

•   Among students, outside of the formal curriculum: Intergroup dialogue could also be helpful outside of the formal curriculum. Students and educators might use it to work together to address a community concern, such as patterns of bullying in school, recurring acts of prejudice (whether intentional or unintentional), or after a traumatic event. School counselors, teachers or other appropriate staff members can facilitate a conversation whereby students come to understand the causes and impacts of the concern, and take action to address the concern. In such cases, educators can adapt intergroup dialogue to suit the needs of a variety of ages, from elementary to secondary students. If necessary and appropriate to the issue and students involved, the intergroup dialogue can be expanded to a larger program in which the students themselves are trained to become peer facilitators, and develop valuable communication, problem-solving and leadership skills.

•   Among school staff, or families and school staff: Much in the ways that intergroup dialogue could be used to help students address collective concerns in their school, educators themselves could use it to address concerns that they may experience. Teachers, administrators and school staff could use intergroup dialogue to address workplace grievances, or to explore ideas and build consensus on a new project at their school. The students’ families could also be involved if their needs and interests are also important when addressing the issue.


  1. In order to move forward, individuals and groups must be ready, willing and committed to participate and engage in what can often be an intense intergroup dialogue experience. In what contexts might an intergroup dialogue process be appropriate and effective? In what contexts might it not?
  2. Intergroup dialogue also requires skilled facilitators who are able to support the participants in their process of social justice education and action. What knowledge, awareness and skills might these facilitators need?
  3. One of the most widely documented challenges and criticisms of intergroup dialogue design and implementation is, as referred to earlier, power imbalances between dominant and non-dominant group participants. For example, an intergroup dialogue designed to address prejudices between immigrant refugee youths and established resident youths in a Vancouver, BC school might be conducted in English. This could possibly place youths who speak English as an additional language at a disadvantage, mirroring and repeating patterns of institutional oppressions already in place outside of the dialogue process. In what ways might designers and facilitators of intergroup dialogue address and challenge such power imbalances?
  4. Communicating across differences based on social identity groups can be emotionally difficult, and tensions can develop between participants as they explore their different experiences and the social and historical forces that divide them. Working through these tensions and building understanding require sustained communication and involvement, not just a one-time workshop or event. What organizational structures are necessary in order to support the effective development, implementation, monitoring and follow-up of an intergroup dialogue program in a school or community?
  5. Some of intergroup dialogue’s key principles and characteristics are rooted in cultural and philosophical traditions that are dominant and widely accepted in mainstream North American society. What possibilities or limitations might arise when participants come from backgrounds that do not necessarily share these traditions? How might designers and facilitators address these possibilities or limitations?
  6. As emphasized earlier, intergroup dialogue can be one of many approaches in a dynamic and evolving toolbox for social justice education and action in schools and communities. What additional approaches might be useful?


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[1] Kash Heed resigned from the West Vancouver Police Department to run successfully in the BC 2009 General Election as an MLA for Vancouver-Fraserview. In June 2009, he was appointed Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General. Heed’s initiatives continue to influence the West Vancouver Police Department currently being run by Acting Chief Jim Almas.