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This might be Chatham’s most life-changing course.

“The class is rewarding enough that you don’t want to skip it. I got my wisdom teeth out and two days later, I was there, with ice packed onto my face,” says first-year student Elena Boyle.

It’s called Intergroup Dialogues (IGD), and this was the first year it was offered at Chatham. There’s a fall term component and a spring term component, and they’re different but complementary. Students—both undergraduate and graduate—can sign up for either, or, perhaps, both.

The goal is to allow students to examine an aspect of their own identity (such as race, gender, ability, etc), how they’ve been socialized around it, and how to have productive dialogues about it. Sound easy? It’s not. Sound worthwhile? Read on.

Fall course
In the fall course–co-taught by Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology Jennifer Morse  and Director of Multicultural Affairs Randi Congleton, PhD.–students discussed theories of social identities and social identity construction in the United States, as well as their own experiences of their own social identities. They also learned how to facilitate a dialogue among their peers. Not a discussion, not a debate—a dialogue. Here’s how Congleton explains the difference: “A debate is about making a point. In a discussion, we might say ‘Let’s agree to disagree’. A dialogue is something else. It’s about listening with a sincere desire to learn more.”

By the end of the term, students had developed not only a deeper understanding of social identities in America and advanced dialogue skills, they were also prepared to facilitate the spring course, and to provide custom-designed 1.5-3-hour workshops around dialogue and social identity to classes, student groups, and other organizations on campus. (And off-campus, too: course participants Diarra Clarke ’18 and Patricia Donohue, MSCP ’18 had a proposal accepted and presented at Pittsburgh’s  20th Annual Summit Against Racism.)

Spring course
“Spring is really when the magic happens,” says Congleton. “Because students commit to spending 14 weeks parsing out one aspect of their identity.” This spring, the focus was on race/ethnicity, facilitated by Hali Santiago, MAP ’18 and Johnnie Tonsor, MSCP ’18, and overseen by Congleton. The spring course fulfills a general education requirement.

IGD facilitators Johnnie Tonsor, MSCP ’18 and Hali Santiago, MAP ’18

“You know a lot less than you think you do,” says Boyle. “Coming into this class, I think that everybody, especially—I guess I can’t speak for all the people of color, but I think in general the people of color were thinking ‘oh, we know this, we understand this.’ And that’s not how it is. With any topic that has a lot of intersectionality or that’s multi-faceted, you know so much less than you think you do. There’s so much you can learn, and you need to be open.”

Students completed readings that included social and political constructions of race in the United States as well as first-person accounts. In class, they engaged in dialogue and in activities that furthered their understanding, though not always in the most comfortable way. That’s because IGD is based on a model that sets forth three zones of learning, says Tonsor.

“When you’re in your comfort zone, things are familiar, so you’re not really that engaged. The next zone is what’s called the learning edge—that’s when there’s some conflict and some discomfort, and you’re attuned to your environment and to others. Then there’s the danger zone, which is too stressful, so you’re out of the space of being able to learn and process.”

“As facilitators, our job is to encourage and challenge them to stay on their learning edge, stay with discomfort, be self-critical, which is difficult,” Tonsor continues. “It involves asking people to do things where their gut reaction is ‘no, I don’t want to do that; that doesn’t feel good.’”

But the class came up with agreements to help them feel more safe. “We had a rule that instead of calling out you call in,” says Maria Positanka ’19. “You say ‘Hey, I heard you say this; I interpreted it this way; is this what you meant?’ And you ask them about their personal experience, and how they came to that opinion.”

“It’s called ‘listening to understand,’” says Boyle. “A lot of times, somebody will be telling you something, and from the first five words of what they say, you already have your response ready to go. That’s one I took to a lot of my relationships – like I would tell my friends, ‘You’re listening to respond!’”

“’Never assume negative intentions’ is another one,” adds Positanka. “At first, there was a lot of jumping to conclusions, or people responding in ways that did not represent what had actually been said. Or automatically assuming that someone is speaking from a position of being willing to be ignorant, or wanting to offend you. But it might just be confusion or miscommunication.”

Boyle cites the “Privilege Walk” as an activity that many of them found meaningful. “Everybody lines up horizontally, and then a number of statements were read out loud,” she says. “Like: ‘If your parents have college degrees, take a step forward. If you cannot easily find hair products for your hair type in a store, take a step backward.’ It was a bunch of statements like that and the statements spread everybody out. At the end, they said ‘Take a look at where you are,’ and it was very polarizing. You had all the white people at the front and all the black people in the back, and most of the multi-racial people in the middle. To see it laid out like that was kind of difficult for everybody and very eye-opening. I cried.”

“I would tell anyone to take the class,” says Justine Barry ’19. “It is one of the most rewarding feelings to go through so much with people –I feel like the people in this class are more than just my classmates. I feel like if I ever needed anything, or I needed someone to go with me to a function, we talk about standing in solidarity with one another, and I know that if that were ever asked of me, or if I ever asked that of anyone else in the class, we would do it. And not just like “oh, I’ll do this to be a good person.” – they’d do it because we’ve been through an experience with one another.”

“This class, even though sometimes you might leave really annoyed, you want to come back,” says Boyle, “because  of the change that you see in yourself and in people and in the interactions you have in class. It’s one of those things that you forget that it’s a curriculum. You’re just here to learn.”

Intergroup Dialogues is based on a model developed by the University of Michigan in the late 1980s. At Chatham, it’s run as a joint partnership between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. Future versions of the course may focus on gender, religion, sexual orientation, citizenship, ability, or other aspects of identity.

Campus Community Profile: Randi Congleton, PhD

randi

Here’s a fun fact about Director of Multicultural Affairs Randi Congleton: She attended the oldest agricultural high school in the country (it’s called W.B. Saul High School, in Philadelphia). With dreams of becoming a veterinarian, she went on to Penn State University, where a series of opportunities began to refocus her goals toward working with college students.

One might say her epiphany arrived as she was working in Student Affairs for the first time while pursuing her Master’s degree in Community Services at Michigan State University. Working with college students, she “Fell. In. Love!” she laughs.

Dr. Congleton—whose background includes youth development as well as collegiate departments including Greek Life, Academic Affairs and Student Affairs—came to Chatham in spring 2017, after earning her PhD in Education and Organizational Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

As part of her work at Illinois, Dr. Congleton coordinated the summer pre-doctoral institute for new students of color. “We supported them in building community, conducting research, and professional development,” she says. “The strength lay in connecting students across disciplines, so that they had not only their cohort, but also this whole other community.”

“I’m very much about institutional responsibility. What can we do a bit differently? How can we think about our own biases, that may not be fully informed, but that get in the way of understanding challenges faced by students who do not come from generations of having gone to college, of having wealth?”

 “The concern—and this is across higher education,” Dr. Congleton says, “is that we’ve been focusing too much on diversity (how many different students can we get in the room), and not enough on inclusion (are our institutions prepared to really support them when they arrive on our campuses).”

In addition to her position as director of Multicultural Affairs, Dr. Congleton is a member of Chatham’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. Asked to share some of their initiatives, she mentions that they’ve been considering a policy for institutional large-scale donations and naming of buildings, as a result of some student concerns around the naming of Sanger Hall. “If we’re considering putting a name on a building,” she says, “we need to do our due diligence into considering that person’s background and the extent to which it reflects Chatham’s ideals.”

The Council is also working with Assistant Professor of Criminology, Social Work, and Psychology Nicole Bayliss’s undergraduate capstone seminar course, which in 2016 did a comprehensive review of gender inclusive language across campus, including policies, forms and websites. “They put together a report and made a set of recommendations,” says Dr. Congleton.

“The college campus space is not normative for all communities. My concern—and my passion—is about how do we create equity on campus, and how do we listen to the voices and meet the needs of those students—men and women of color, who identify with the LGBTQIA community, or with disabilities—who may not have been traditionally heard? How does the system need to be different to help change the lives of the students who come here?”

Shortly after her arrival in March, Dr. Congleton was approached to co-sponsor a multicultural graduation ceremony, which she considered a smashing success. “We invited family and alumni. (Chatham) President Finegold said a welcome, and we held a brunch with a keynote speaker. The alumni put kente stoles (traditional Ghanaian garments often used in celebratory ceremonies for African-American students) on graduating students, and we worked with Academic Affairs to put together stoles for students who weren’t African American. We had serapes for students from Latin American cultures, and made a stole for a student from Laos with her country’s flag on it. It was a really nice way for alumni to welcome the graduates into the community of being a Chatham alum.”

This fall, Dr. Congleton is co-teaching a course along with Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology Jennifer Morse on facilitating intergroup dialogue around social justice issues. The course is open to undergraduate and graduate students, and next term, they will have the opportunity to facilitate a course for their peers who are discussing social justice issues—thus putting theory immediately into practice. The students will also have opportunities to lead workshops across campus for their peers.

It’s a good example of how Dr. Congleton sees the way forward. “I’m really looking at how we can engage folks across campus and build coalitions to do this kind of work,” she says. “It has to be done thoughtfully. We can do more harm than good if we are not intentional about how we talk to others about social justice issues.”

And she is optimistic. “There’ve been so many volunteers!” she says. “Not only students but also faculty and staff have stepped up to help, even if just to say ‘I’m nervous and don’t know what to do, but I think this is important and I want to be a part of it.’ Getting as many people invested as possible is how we’re going to make this work.”