Role for Intergroup Dialogue in Sri Lankan Higher Education?

Posted on October 22, 2014  /  8 Comments

Inter-group Dialogue is an interactive and facilitated learning experience that brings together twelve to eighteen students from two or more social identity groups over a sustained period to explore commonalities and differences, examine the nature and consequences of systems of power and privilege, and find ways to work together to promote social justice (Zuniga et al. 2011).

My interest as an advocate for Intergroup Dialogue grew specifically with experience as a facilitator for a dialogue on National Origin at an urban American University that is increasingly expanding its global presence. My curiosity about ethno/religious tensions that are perpetuated in ‘learning environments’ also made me look into educational methods that have a record of effectiveness. At first, one can be sceptical of the carefully planned structure and allocation of participants in groups, but it definitely made me a convert when I realized how liberating it was to talk about sensitive issues in a safe and open space.

The Intergroup Dialogue (IGD) model was developed relatively recently in response to the racial tensions that arose at the University of Michigan. During my time as a graduate facilitator, topics of IGD that were popular included a dialogue on Race, Gender, Able-ism/Disable-ism, Sexuality and Spirituality, Faith and Nation Origin (specific to the social context of the University and the U.S)

IGD cannot be haphazardly organized. The IGD model requires planning, actively reflection, and guidance from an advisor. The advisor should help the group build good group dynamics, agree on group guidelines, understand that definitions of words and concepts are fluids, yet agree on working definitions and then eventually addressing keys questions, opinions and debates that are important to the IGD. The composition of participating students, usually between 12-18, is engineered in such a way that gender and social, personal identities are equally represented. For example in an IGD on the topic of Gender, at least half the class should identify as male, and the other half as female and can include transgender persons. In other words there is an equal representation of voices.

Philosophical roots of IGD

Intergroup Dialogue (IGD) draws its philosophical and theoretical framework from ideological traditions that value dialogue as a method of communication and inquiry. John Dewey, an influential thinker and educator inspired a progressive democratic education movement in the U.S. that allowed students the opportunity to learn by dealing with real-life problems that stimulated reflections of the world they live in. Paulo Freire’s writings on developing critical consciousness, student-centred learning and liberation theology were building on Dewey’s ideas to empower marginalized populations through a new approach to literacy so that they could challenge social inequities. Not surprisingly Freire’s bold thinking influenced critical, feminist and anti-racist theorists in education.

Freire’s notion of a ‘problematizing’ approach to learning, as opposed to the traditional and passive approach to learning called ‘the banking concept’, as well as developing critical consciousness about social issues are definitely embedded in the IGD philosophy. As a learning strategy ‘journaling’ by both participants and facilitators as well as incorporating time for processing a sensitive issues or a video clip, are essentially to the holistic IGD experience.

The Social division within Universities

Students in the Sri Lankan public university system are divided along elite/non-elite lines. These groups are commonly known as the anti-raggers (alayo) and raggers (boggu/welayo). One cannot ignore the fact that some universities have an ingrained culture of ragging with ulterior political motives. If a culture of dialogue can be initiated between the majority raggers and anti-raggers at least at the more liberal universities, then the converted may be able to convince other universities and student groups to change the dynamics of social interactions at local universities.

Intergroup Dialogue will not only challenge youth to think out of the box, learn about oppressive systems in society and hopefully instill a sense of social responsibility, but would be beneficial in fostering catalysts who can vouch for the liberating power of student-centric learning and critical consciousness and incorporate a dialogic approach to the way they learn Literature and History etc. in the university curriculum.

Can IGD bring about a dialogue across social class distinctions?

Though not a product of the national higher education system itself or having experienced ragging, I believe that a higher education (especially one that is free) should be an intellectually enriching experience where differences of class should not be an obstacle to intellectual communication and enrichment.

So, my proposed program for incoming undergraduates would be to bring together groups of 12-15 individuals from different class backgrounds and an equal representation of gender. A programme designed to foster intergroup relations for incoming undergraduates needs to be initiated by an undergraduate advisor or the person in charge of organizing First-Year Experience Programs. Since dynamics in the group can get heated and tense at times, it is important that an experienced professor is heading the programme and is updated regularly on how the sessions progressed. It is imperative that the facilitators are well-prepared and trained through theoretical and experiential learning. Facilitators should be nominated by teachers or can apply for the position and will be chosen based on their investment in Social Justice Education, some familiarity with the humanities such as psychology, sociology, social work is preferred but not required. They should demonstrate the potential to work well with groups, especially in diverse groups, are sensitive and have some experiences working as a team. In the initial stages the topics for the dialogue can be discussed with undergraduate advisors, deans of the faculty and settle on a topic that needs to be talked about urgently. For example in a Sri Lankan context it will be an based on ethnicity, religion or class differences. Since students in the Sri Lankan public university system are divided along elite/non-elite lines the dialogue between raggers and anti-raggers can initiate mutual understanding among the groups, even if they don’t agree on each other’s politics.

For an Intergroup dialogue to bear the initial fruits it has to follow the process of building group dynamics, learning about the history of oppression, understanding identity and privilege, discussing the main issues of the topic, debriefing on the experience and most importantly taking steps to be allies. In that sense there isn’t a definite end to the dialogue process since its effects are felt in the everyday interactions with others. But since a final ‘celebration’ brings a sense of finality and acknowledgment of attitudinal change, the final class should showcase what they have learned or how they would behave differently and make a pledge to be an ally in all possible situations.

The idea of a dialogue is not a new one, yet the purpose of IGD is to educate, be aware of oppressive systems and create a sense of understanding between traditionally hostile groups. With constant reporting and discussion with mentors and other facilitators, the IGD model is able to often anticipate conflicts among participants and are equipped with tools to navigate and resolve problems. Moreover, when implementing IGD in Sri Lanka, it will present obstacles are drawbacks that are unique to the Higher education system and learning cultures of Sri Lanka. It is because of this developing the programme will require careful planning and constantly evaluating the ‘temperature’ of the group and their journey toward becoming catalysts. Since its inception IGD has been developed through experiential learning and research on the outcomes and preparing guidelines and resources for facilitators.

Useful Resources Online:



  1.  Intergroup Dialogue in Higher Education: Meaningful Learning About Social Justice: ASHE Higher Education Report, Volume 32, Number 4
  2. Ximena Zuniga, Biren (Ratnesh) A. Nagda, Mark Chesler, Adena Cytron-Walker
  3. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, 2nd Edition, edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, Pat Griffin
  4. Schoem, David & Sylvia Hurtado (eds). (2001). Intergroup Dialogue: Deliberative Democracy in School, College, Community, and Workplace. University of Michigan Press

Books and interactive website:

Facilitator Guide to the documentary ”What’s Race Got to do with it?”

Guide to films on Social Justice issues with more relevance to South Asia

  • Cultural Fluency: A Transformative Agenda for Caring Communities- a FLICT publication (2011)

Facilitator’s Guide available in Sinhala, Tamil and English









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