Culture of Belonging in Action

By Michael R. Malone

Culture of Belonging in Action

By Michael R. Malone
Intergroup Dialogue, a pilot program that will soon become a UM elective course, promotes honest talk on privilege and power to foster respect for divergent voices.

“Life-changing.” “Humbling.” “I felt so connected.”

These were among the insights shared by faculty, staff and students who gathered August 16 to assess their experience as part of the Intergroup Dialogue (IGD), a program piloted this past summer and spring that aims to heighten the value of diversity and appreciation for our unique life experiences, celebrate our differences and to nurture a culture of belonging at the University of Miami. 

Forty faculty, staff, and students attended two pilot sessions: the 2018 spring session focused on race/ethnicity and the summer session on sexual orientation/gender. Participants gathered for a lunch last week in the Newman Alumni Center to discuss their takeaways with program coordinators and with UM President Julio Frenk, who has championed the broad initiative to cultivate a culture at UM where everyone feels valued and has the opportunity to add value. 

“This topic is of obvious importance for me, and one we started right off the bat when I arrived,” said Frenk, who celebrated his third anniversary as president on the same day. “I’m glad to see how broad, abstract ideas have been translated into concrete action steps and initiatives. This (progress) allows us to build a real scholarship of belonging that we can assess the impact—it’s exciting.” 

Renée Dickens Callan, the director of multicultural students affairs, was one of many in the room who was surprised by the depth of the experience. 

“I’ve done this work a lot, attending predominantly white institutions for a long time,” she said. “The dialogue provided an opportunity that was enriching and a connection to colleagues that was not there before,” she said. "I felt very connected with the folks in my group—and that’s important for the U moving forward.” 

When Laura Kohn-Wood, recently named dean of the School of Education and Human Development, left a faculty position at the University of Michigan almost a decade ago to join UM, she transplanted the seeds of the intergroup dialogue program spawned by a study directed by her Michigan colleague Pat Gurin.

“It was a dream that this would become a reality,” Kohn-Wood said. 

When President Frenk joined the University she said she talked with him about this evidence-based practice that generates empathy and understanding of inequality and privileges, and optimizes learning opportunities for students. The president was immediately supportive and has remained so, she said.

In Miriam Lipsky, the acting assistant vice provost with the Office of Institutional Culture (OIC), and the rest of the OIC team, Kohn-Wood found a capable driver eager to move the belonging bus down the road. 

Supported with small grants from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and the Interfaith Youth Core, Lipsky and the OIC team formed a working group from which participants for the spring and summer pilot sessions were drawn. This fall a small student group will participate in the first pilot course for undergraduate students, and the course will launch formally in Spring 2019. 

The curriculum that has been transplanted from the University of Michigan was customized to fit Miami’s unique cultural and nuanced diversities. The approach remains the same: session by session build trust and bonding through conversations and questions that tackle thorny issues that are often the basis for discord and alienation yet rarely discussed in our society. There are four proposed modules: race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and religion. Gender and sexual orientation were fused in the summer pilot to review course materials more expeditiously. 

Allan Gyorke, chief academic technology officer and assistant provost for Education Innovation, attended one of the pilots and described how the IGD has dovetailed with the University’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), which includes the promotion of discussion-based learning. 

“The two originally were separate, but they’ve grown to become parallel and complementary,” said Gyorke. He explained that in a program that promotes dialogue and discussion-based learning, it is important to consider the social identities of the students in the courses and how this might relate to their participation. Doing so can also help deal with stereotypes that might emerge at any time in a class, such as the notion that women are not as apt at math as men. Through the collaboration of the Culture of Belonging and Educational Innovation initiatives, faculty will be primed for dialogue and discussion-based courses with background on "stereotype threat" and other research related to belonging in the classroom. 

“The two initiatives have different structures and origins but both share the same purpose—that students learn from each other,” Gyorke said.

Andrea Iglesias, a UM adjunct professor and also a facilitator with the North Star Group, which organizes similar sessions at other universities, facilitated the spring session and participated in the summer session.

“What stood out most was that this group was very knowledgeable about inclusivity, issues of diversity and equality, and yet the conversations were still very engaging and meaningful,” Iglesias said. “I could just imagine what it would be like for students who have very little experience. Being open to see what shows up creates a completely new learning experience.” 

The dialogue has already generated a number of related initiatives on campus. Dickens Callan formed a committee of students through the multicultural office for student affairs who developed a survey on associated efforts on campus. They plan to measure student outcomes, identify partners to work with, and examine the current onboarding process to see what should be communicated to new students about these efforts on campus. 

Andrew Wiemer, program director at the Butler Center for Service & Leadership, and Chris Hartnett of the OIC are developing an intergroup facilitation scholarship program, which has yet to be formally named, similar to the existing Civic Scholars Program. The aim would be for students who master the techniques of facilitating intergroup dialogues to be recognized, and for them to act as facilitators to teach others. 

Janet Bringuez-Sanchez, an assistant programs director on the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine campus, said her participation was “a life-changing experience.” 

“It was wonderful to see the bond that formed in our group—and we want for students to see that, too,” she said, adding that she plans to seed the dialogue module on the medical campus. 

Wilson Mejia, a grad student and intern in the OIC office, was the lone student to attend a pilot session.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Mejia grew up in New York. His humble upbringing and identity as a student of color didn’t prepare him, he said, to attend a university as prestigious, and sometimes as daunting, as UM. 

“As we went along I was able to reflect, and when I was able to tell my story to my group it allowed me to break through so much of the uncomfortableness I’d been feeling, Mejia said. “An experience like this could help a lot of students bridge differences and build solidarity.”