Using Intergroup Dialogue to Promote Social Justice and Change

Article excerpt

Social workers are not strangers to polarization and conflict, whether these phenomena manifest themselves in family or organizations, as personal discord, or as political dispute. Social work spans the internal--external, personal--political continuum in research and practice and addresses conflict at all levels of society. Topics such as politics, racism, religion, and culture are often flashpoints for social conflict, and individuals who hold strong beliefs can quickly become polarized by these highly charged subjects, with results that range from personal stress to acts of individual and international aggression.

Social workers are also not strangers to polarization in our own profession. In many ways, micro and macro practice remain compartmentalized and rarely overlap. A focus on psychotherapeutic practice concerns those who view the fundamental mission of social work as addressing the larger societal needs of society's most disenfranchised members (Specht & Courtney, 1994). Conversely, the profession's historical emphasis on social justice presents a dilemma to workers in traditional mental health and medical models who focus on the internal dynamics, deficiencies, and strengths of individuals, dyads, and families (Dewees, 2002). The goal of integrating individual need and social activism poses a duality in the social work profession that has been difficult to span.

In this article, we examine intergroup dialogue work as a bridging mechanism through which social workers in clinical, other direct practice, organizer, activist, and other roles across the micro-macro practice spectrum can engage with people in conflict to advance advocacy, justice, and social change. Intergroup dialogue is a facilitated community experience designed to provide a safe yet communal space to express anger and indignation about injustice. It is a method through which social work practitioners who struggle to effect social change may address power, cultural differences, and divisive issues constructively (Agbaria & Cohen, 2002). Intergroup dialogue has the potential to harness extraordinary power toward the goal of achieving personal and community transformation, conflict resolution, advocacy, and social change.


The extensive literature review carried out for this article indicates that intergroup dialogue work in the public arena is widely representative of many disciplines and is gaining currency in social work (Nagda & Zuniga, 2003; Schoem & Hurtado, 2001). A thorough review of theoretical approaches influential in the development of intergroup dialogue is beyond the scope of this article, but we provide an extensive bibliography elsewhere (Dessel, Garlington, & Rogge, 2005).


Intergroup dialogue work is 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. As noted earlier, intergroup 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. They strive to avoid unproductive language, foster new listening skills, improve communication patterns, value differences, and develop shared meanings (Chasin et al., 1996). Intergroup dialogue potentiates a democratic process that acknowledges and respects all parties, creates a context that reinforces the notion that change is possible, and transforms relationships toward positive social change. Through such changes, public decision making is influenced, and new, previously unexplored results can be produced (Schoem, 2003; Zubizaretta, 2002).

Characteristics of intergroup dialogue include fostering an environment that enables participants to speak and listen in the present while understanding the contributions of the past and the unfolding of the future. …


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