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Intergroup Dialogue: Deliberative Democracy in School, College, Community and Workplace

reviewed by Patty Bode & Sonia Nieto - 2003

coverTitle: Intergroup Dialogue: Deliberative Democracy in School, College, Community and Workplace
Author(s): David Louis Schoem and Sylvia Hurtado (Editors)
Publisher: University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor
ISBN: 0472067826, Pages: 336, Year: 2001
Search for book at Amazon.com

According to Paulo Freire (1970), “dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants”  (p. 70). In the thirty-two years since these words were first written, a variety of definitions and connotations of dialogue have been explored in academic discussions, community grassroots organizations, and corporate reform efforts. Until now, these discussions have not been pulled together in one volume. The purpose of David Schoem and Sylvia Hurtado’s Intergroup Dialogue: Deliberative Democracy in School, College, Community and Workplace is to provide the first comprehensive resource for defining, practicing, and understanding intergroup dialogue in a variety of settings. 


Race is not easily discussed in our society. In this text, Schoem and Hurtado are clear about their intention to address racism and social identity relations directly. Very early in the first chapter, they point out, “One of the greatest challenges facing democracy in the United States is for its citizens to learn to live together across their different backgrounds without resorting to inequality, subjugation, and oppression.” (p. 2). Because anti-racism, and anti-discrimination work in general, is at the very core of a multicultural perspective, intergroup dialogue can be an important tool for addressing racism in schools, colleges, communities and the workplace.


The opening pages in the first chapter emphasize the philosophical goal of intergroup dialogue through ten essential points defining this approach. The authors explain, “When people from different and historically unequal footing come together as equals to confront past and present conflict, they move to the very issues of democracy in the United States.” (p. 17) Throughout the book, the authors intertwine this lofty goal with concrete hands-on experience that illustrate both the problems and the successes of  intergroup dialogue in implementation, research, and assessment. In Chapter 2, Hurtado reviews the research on intergroup dialogue, thus providing a solid grounding in research and theory that challenges the perception that intergroup dialogue is just a “touchy feely” activity for a select few.


The twelve-chapter section of case studies presents examples of intergroup dialogue in action across the four settings named in the book title: School, College, Community and Workplace. While a few of the case studies are a bit lengthy, they provide the reader with the valuable perspective of practitioners in the field.


The School section examines intergroup dialogue programs in elementary, middle and high schools in diverse U.S. regions. With models from various programs, these three chapters are certain to be helpful to teachers, administrators, parent groups and others interested in starting intergroup dialogues in their own schools. While emphasizing the success of these models, the authors do not shy away from describing the challenges of administering these programs in public schools.


The case studies in the College section draw heavily on the same resources and share similar goals as programs in schools, but they focus attention on communities that may have different administrative goals, scheduling issues, and resources. With overviews that include goals, philosophy, staffing, organization, and structure, as well as activities and quotes from student journals, these chapters offer innovative methods for pooling resources through interesting inter-departmental collaborations. The University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations, Conflict and Community, for example, brings together faculty and staff as a unit in the Division of Student Affairs and operates in partnership with the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. The Arizona State University and University of Washington programs are especially creative and can be models for other colleges and universities that want to make intergroup dialogue a reality at their own campuses.


The Communities section is filled with the passionate voices of people from diverse communities trying to make intergroup dialogue work in their particular settings. Because many community organizations spring directly from grassroots efforts, they tend to develop a unique approach to intergroup dialogue. As a consequence, each chapter in this section seems to have a distinct voice and even a different body of literature. While this distinctiveness may be congruent with the intergroup dialogue goal of adapting the process to each community’s needs, it can also lead to stark differences in understanding the definition and objectives of the intergroup dialogue process. For example, in her description of the Hope in the Cities project, Karen Elliott Greisdorf writes: “For the process to be most effective, the dialogue curriculum must be free of political bias or judgment and exclude any politically directed questions”  (p. 157). This statement appears to be antithetical to promoting deliberate dialogue about race and oppression, a goal introduced in the early chapters of the book, and it is also inconsistent with the premises of the first two sections of case studies in schools and colleges. This example illustrates both the richness and the complexity of comparing approaches used outside the academic realm to those within it. 


The Workplace section follows. In Chapter 12, Cultural Study Groups: Creating Dialogue in a Corporate Setting , authors Rita Hardiman and Bailey Jackson describe how intergroup dialogue started in the 1970’s as an innovative program at Digital Equipment Corporation with a focus on discussions of race and gender. The chapter includes especially helpful information on multicultural organizational development, currently a hot topic in the corporate world. Two other chapters include explanations of intergroup dialogue in corporate settings, which contrast with those in educational settings. The basic difference between them is that corporations ask questions about bottom lines and effective management. While these differences may produce another set of objectives for the intergroup dialogue, most of the methods and tenets of intergroup dialogue are strikingly similar across all settings.


The chapters in the section on Critical Issues in Intergroup Dialogue detail some excellent guidelines to heighten the awareness of facilitators and participants concerning common questions and concerns in the dialogue experience. Complexities addressed in this section include the question of individual and group identities, and the balance between content and process. Chapter 20, Design Considerations in Intergroup Dialogue, by Ximena Zúñiga and Biren (Ratnesh) A. Nagda, clarifies four models of intergroup dialogue illustrated in portions of the case study section:  collective inquiry, critical-dialogical education, community building and social action, and conflict resolution and peace-building. Zúñiga and Nagda point out that the models, although different, “are similar in that they envision dialogue as a process and not an event” (p. 310). These authors help clarify the similarities and differences among the four models of intergroup dialogue, suggesting that this particular chapter might have been better placed before the case studies.


In addition to successfully creating a useful reference and resource guide for intergroup dialogue, Schoem and Hurtado have effectively illustrated how, when well facilitated and shaped by the community in which it is engaged, intergroup dialogue can lead to action. Early on, they ask, “What does a multicultural school, university, community, workplace, government, society look like and how does it function day to day? How does one go about changing organizational and institutional structures to support a new vision of a just, diverse America?” (p. 17) They propose that these questions, “at the heart of American democracy…” might be best addressed through intergroup dialogue.


But intergroup dialogue, as both process and philosophy, can also be problematic. Anyone hoping to transform unequal societal structures simply through talk or personal psychological change is not only ingenuous, but also bound to be disappointed. Hence, the very basis of intergroup dialogue – its psychological framework – is both its charm and its liability. Intergroup dialogue is an appealing process for personal transformation, but it poses challenges to those of us who view change in a broader sociopolitical context. Viewing the individual as a major source of change can lead readers to believe that shifting individual attitudes and beliefs will automatically lead to a more just society. To their credit, most of the authors of this text, and certainly its editors, recognize this problem and discuss the need to go beyond talk and individual conversion to social action. Given this caveat, Intergroup Dialogue: Deliberative Democracy in School, College, Community and Workplace is a helpful book that offers practice that is hopeful without being naïve, active without being pedantic. It brings us to greater understanding of Paulo Freire’s idea of praxis:  “There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus to speak a true word is to transform the world” (p. 68).




Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 7, 2003, p. 1298-1301
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10901, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:43:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Patty Bode

    E-mail Author

  • Sonia Nieto
    University of Massachusetts, Amherst
    E-mail Author
    SONIA NIETO is Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture in the School of Education, University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is editor of the Language, Culture, and Teaching Series for Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers. Her latest book, What Keeps Teachers Going in Spite of Everything?, a collaboration with a group of public school teachers, is scheduled for publication by Teachers College Press later this year.
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