Sylvia Hurtado: Diversity, Dialogue, and Democracy

Just Talk - Voices of Education and Justice

In this week’s Just Talk, John Rogers sits down with Sylvia Hurtado, professor of education at UCLA. Dr. Hurtado is an expert in undergraduate education, student development in college, and diversity in higher education. She is past President of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and the past director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Her recent research examines how campuses organize to close degree completion gaps, the pathways of underrepresented students’ in scientific research and professional careers, and student and institutional outcomes of diverse and broad access institutions in higher education. Next week, Sylvia Hurtado will receive the Social Justice in Education Award from the American Educational Research Association.


John Rogers: In recent months, many k-12 schools and college campuses have experienced heightened incivility, tension, and misunderstanding. You have been thinking and writing about diversity and campus climate for many years. Here at UCLA, you work with students to develop their capacity for understanding and dialogue across difference in ways that affirm diversity and promote democracy. You’re finishing a course right now, for instance, that trains undergraduates to become facilitators of intergroup dialogue. I’d like to start off by asking what diversity means to you, and why it is a potentially rich resource within the field of education.

Sylvia Hurtado: My views have largely been shaped by working in legal arenas, and in the old days, it was mostly black and white in terms of discussing which issues “diversity” even touched on. From a legal standpoint, diversity is broad—it covers race, but also gender, sexual orientation, religion, and so forth. It’s also a difference of perspectives and views that are shaped by class and a range of other identities.

The advice that I give people on campuses when I get this question is that each person has to adopt a multiple social identity view of diversity. This view is one that particularly fits the ways that we talk about a whole range of marginalized groups, and their efforts to gain equity, avert discrimination, and gain respect in a democracy. So, while diversity is broadly construed, it isn’t so broad that it overlooks the special needs of specific groups. I advise people on campuses to adopt a broad definition of diversity from a legal standpoint, but from an educational standpoint, they should also incorporate multiple social identities and keep in mind equity issues that are important for specific groups. So, it’s an approach that aims for both ends. It’s not an either/or choice any longer.

When you say a campus should be thinking about multiple social identities, I take it that you mean something more than merely thinking of different groups of students. In what ways does it differ from that? 

We know that in our democracy, historically and at present, identity isn’t divorced from political views. The diversity of perspectives is clearly important because of the differences in the lived experiences of different groups and their members. But views are not solely informed by one’s identity, and that’s the beauty of dialogue—we understand the heterogeneity between different groups and within each group as well, so that when we talk about and work with different groups, we may understand their long historical struggles, the conflicts they’ve had, and their conflicts with other groups. We may come to understand the complexity of these groups and their dialogues that are shaped by social, historical, and political conditions, or immigrant experiences, all of that.

If I understand correctly, you’re saying that individuals have multiple identities, and there is multiplicity within each of these identities. Is that right?

There’s a lot of heterogeneity within identities, and I want to separate one’s personal identity from a social identity, for instance. Social identity is important because it’s group-based and reflects the extent to which individuals feel a sense of fate with a particular group—a story, a history of struggle. When I do this work with students, at first they all want to talk about personal identity, which is important. I turn them towards the social identity component, which gets them to consider their shared sense of fate and differences in social status. With each of those identities, there are differences in social status that have to be accounted for. Take higher education, for example: people arrive here and they didn’t all get here the same way. Some had to go through incredible struggles and overcome extraordinary obstacles just to gain access to higher education, particularly in selective institutions like UCLA.

Back in 2003, in the Grutter case, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the question of whether universities can use diversity as a factor in the admissions process. Some of your research, in fact, helped the Court understand the value of diversity in advancing an institution’s mission. What’s your take on what the Court decision said regarding the importance of diversity in education?

When we were first asked us researchers to weigh in, the lawyers asked a very basic question: Does it make a difference whether or not a student is educated with someone who’s different from them in terms of diversity, and if so, how does it make a difference? That is, how do we know diversity itself has an educational impact.

We told them: “The findings are amazingly consistent.” We looked at the relationship between diversity and various democratic outcomes and academic outcomes. Democratic outcomes included, for example, civility, tolerance for students from different groups, empathy, and voting. The democratic outcomes were something like 98 percent consistent. Every time we did an analysis, diversity and diverse interactions showed an important effect for these outcomes. On the academic side, the consistency of findings was more like 75 percent, but that is still very high. We basically concluded that diversity has an impact, and may potentially make a big difference, though it is all contingent on their interactions.

What do you mean by that—that these outcomes are contingent on interactions?

Say we bring a large group together in a large lecture hall. If they never interact with each other, you’re not going to get the benefits of diversity. You must have active learning, which we create by intentionally mixing groups in interesting ways. These are conditions that actually activate better learning. Students interact with people who have different upbringings, different ideas, different social identities, histories, and immigration histories, for instance. In diverse places like UCLA, it really works. In places that are less diverse, we still saw an effect, but the probabilities of interacting with someone who’s different from you in a predominantly white campus is obviously much less—unless of course you are in the minority, in which case you’re almost always interacting across difference.

This is similar to a distinction sometimes made by K-12 researchers between desegregation, which entails the moving of bodies, and integration, which entails intentional efforts to have people interact in new and different ways. What are some purposeful ways that higher education institutions promote interaction among students that then lead to the positive effects you’re talking about?

Dialogues, certainly. They are used to intentionally bring together different groups that have conflicts with one another, in order to have conversations about things that they may otherwise not have opportunities to address. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst, for example, brings African-Americans and Jews together in dialogue pretty often.

Active learning is another. In older days, researchers focused on things like the “jigsaw classroom,” and there was work at Stanford that looked at achievement differences and other kinds of outcomes, particularly for African-Americans and other groups. These studies showed us that how one structures both classrooms and learning is very important. So, I think it is contingent on teaching to a large extent, but campuses also provide lots of life experiences, learning opportunities, and opportunities to interact across differences. These extracurricular components are really important as well.

Some of your earlier writings address how diversity prompts more active engagements that then lead to learning. Can you describe how that works? Why is it that diversity seems to matter for learning?

That’s a really good question. When we did our analysis, we had a leading theory that centered around the extent to which one is taken out of their embedded worldview and allowed to consider that of another. Those experiences usually create the “Aha” moments we’re after. Piaget would call it cognitive dissonance, which leads to learning when one can no longer rely on habits and routines to understand their world or someone else’s experience. They are suddenly left to learn new habits and new understandings, or they struggle and withdraw, which can happen if these activities are not facilitated well.

From a cognitive standpoint, in transitions to college, as students have to develop new habits and routines, these provide opportune moments for them to learn about diversity, and for campuses to incorporate diversity and foster positive attitudes about diversity. Of course, people fall into old habits and routines again, and that’s part of the basis for stereotyping. It’s just easier for the mind to put people into categories and not think about them as individuals.

It really is about understanding the lived experiences of another that makes the notion of what we’re trying to achieve in a democracy much more concrete. It’s fine to think about and teach or learn about equity in the abstract, but it makes it concrete when undergraduates find out how different others are, in some respects. Some of our students were or are homeless. Some of our students went to 12 schools before they got to college because they had to move around. When those students start sharing their life experiences, it becomes very clear how different they are and I think that helps create more empathy and greater understanding. Being exposed to that at a theoretical and personal level allows them to begin to understand, “Oh, we have different social identities and they’re not all valued the same way in society.” Hearing a personal story of discrimination is much more impactful and actually brings the abstract to a more concrete and personal level, I think.

Does this broaden students’ understandings of who they are? Does it lead them to see their connections to one another?  

Absolutely. There’s a four-stage pedagogy in dialogue, and the first part is building relationships, which allows them to not be strangers in the classroom. Knowing something about each other’s history is a very important baseline to begin talking about conflicts, to undo misunderstandings, and to trust one another. This is what we’re missing, to a certain extent, in our democracy. In order to move forward, we have to build such relationships. We may have differences of opinion but we may also have common interests, and you can come from different angles to those common interests. We talk a lot about moving from positions to interests, and understanding interests, and what those common interests might be.

Can you define intergroup dialogue?

The model I use is very specific, because there are many different types of dialogue. The one we use is meant to be sustainable, because dialogue can’t be one conversation if it is to move people from superficial understandings to deeper understandings. We train peers to facilitate conversations with each other, and they build incredible skills. Some of them are intuitively good questioners and thinkers and naturals at bringing people together. Others have to work really hard at it, but it’s great to see people who are definitely not extroverts realize that they’re really good at it.

The key is that it is identity-based education. We use the notion of multiple social identities as a starting point, and as a way to create commonality and appreciate difference. For example, any one of us can have five different identities. The salience of each identity depends on the context, and some are very important to us. We ask students if there is a particular identity they have which is denigrated or not valued in society. Of course, people feel these things all the time, and these identities may be (and frequently are) hidden or invisible. Helping them consider questions like this from the standpoint of multiple social identities in turn helps them to connect sources of discrimination and experiences of oppression. The multiple social identities is that little trick; it’s the tool in the toolbox that helps them see which identities are privileged (or not) in our society.

I imagine it can also help them see how the societal value of any identity changes in different contexts, and in different moments.

Right—all of a sudden, a white person may begin to see how they are classed, gendered, and part of the societal heteronormativity, and most importantly, they realize how these constitute important parts of their identity. So it helps them see commonality in a new way, but it also instills an appreciation of differences. I’ve used religious differences—say, where one person states something like “homosexuality is sinful and wrong”—to point out how even those who are strongly religious have identities that are denigrated by their own religion. The main thing is to help them identify those points where they can can identify and empathize with the “other,” whatever it happens to be. The trick, then, is putting those multiple social identities to their proper use. The other “tricks” are to ask questions and suspend judgment—and these, typically, are the hardest things for students to do.

In your experience, what kinds of questions work? Conversely, what kinds of questions don’t work? 

We train students to understand and make use of eight kinds of questions, and we utilize different questioning exercises to do so. Some questions help students challenge causal assumptions. When students articulate a bias without realizing it, we call them “missteps.” They might only be articulating something a family member said, but that can trigger someone else in the room, so we allow the group to correct those statements or raise questions and suspend their judgments. This follows from one of our key principles: suspend judgment, and ask questions.

There are affective questions, which we use to uncover how participants are made to feel as they engage in dialogues. Even if a statement offended somebody, they’re pretty good at asking questions so that they may better understand what the speaker meant; this is really important because it shows their willingness to reconsider positions, or even a feeling. So they ask more questions: “How were you offended by what I said?” Getting students to ask really good questions is another trick in the toolbox.

So if a student comes in and says, in effect, “I have certain core beliefs that I do not want to challenge,” how do you deal with that?

I don’t purport to change minds, but I do want to open minds. I tell students that they can create a new awareness and provide tools so that others can do something with their newfound awareness. I’ve had students who are Trump supporters, for example, who plainly state that they are not going to change their core beliefs. In fact, we look at a conflict continuum to show how the form of conflict that is easiest to resolve is misinformation, because it can be corrected in the whole group, if you have facts and good sources to correct the misinformation. On the other hand, the most difficult conflicts are those rooted in values and beliefs. Difficult, but not impossible. With the religious example I gave, that person started to question not only why homosexuals aren’t permitted in their religion, but also why one of her own identities—she’s a single mom—was also constantly denigrated. So I didn’t change her beliefs, but I did create a new awareness, I think, where she could empathize with someone even though her religion condemned their behavior.

But connecting with an individual and personally knowing someone through the class helps change this. We open the doors that allow these connections to happen. As I tell the students, the last stage of dialogue is action planning, and then taking action, including becoming allies and building coalitions. That’s the last part of what we do. It’s one thing to create a newfound awareness, but you have to give people something to do.

Why is that important, as opposed to ending with dialogue?

It safeguards against the tendency to fall back on entrenched habits, routines, and general ways of being. If students step out of their comfort zones in a classroom dialogue, they’ve learned something new; then, when they walk away from the dialogue, they’ve opened their eyes to see discrimination and oppression. It’s a transformation: many students move from never having seen such things to seeing it everywhere.

And that can be very painful.

Right. And because of that, they need to have some concrete things to do. There are advocacy groups they can join. It doesn’t have to be a big thing—making a statement, or asking a chancellor to make a statement, may not be “big” but it’s still meaningful.

There’s a great book called We Too Sing America that provides some useful guidance for talking about race, and going back to the importance of making things concrete, it also addresses the importance of building coalitions. I introduced it this year in my class and it was unfortunately very timely because of the Muslim ban. It covers coalition building and action steps in the appendix. Over the past year I’ve been thinking about how essential tools like these are, because opening people’s eyes to all of these things makes them feel that they have to do something. One of the great things in this book is an exercise that has you visualize the diverse and equitable America you’d like to see. What would your campus look like? What are the concrete steps you can take to get there? And that’s where we end the first course; in the next quarter, if their skills are developed enough they get to facilitate some real dialogues.

I’m curious about how the process you use with the students is similar to or different from other places where they are engaged in dialogue or learning about diversity.

As I train students to facilitate, I have certain goals and outcomes in mind that I’m aiming for. I leave time for debriefing and processing, because one thing I’m trying to do is to normalize emotion and conflict. In other words, I’m expecting strong emotional responses, which is always better than being surprised by it. So, I have a tissue box. That’s one way our process is different.

In an informal environment, there’s no one to mediate conflict. In fact, a facilitator isn’t even a mediator—facilitators work the group through the conflict, and they model how to trust the process. It’s a very specific process, and it doesn’t always aim for a solution. For example, one of our activities was on the use of the “B word.” You can’t end an activity like that by saying, “Okay, those who were desensitized, you need to not use it anymore.” We have to consider free speech, and the reality that words like these will always exist and their meanings will change. Students naturally want to know the “right” thing to do, and I tell them that it isn’t quite that easy—every meaning and context is different. Depending on who is using the word and how they’re using it, it can be empowering or disempowering. Some students come in never having used such words, and they begin to understand that there’s a variety in their use and meaning; others who were desensitized to these words recognize how sensitive others are to them. But we don’t “resolve” the conflict, and that’s not our objective—it’s more about becoming aware of their multiple definitions and uses.

So there are no right answers, but there are ways of responding that grasp nuance and communicate empathy and understanding.

That’s right. It’s so different from conflict resolution, where the person leading the conversation is neutral. You can’t be neutral about sexual harassment, sexual assault, or discrimination. There’s no neutrality there.

The responsibility of the facilitator, then, is to encourage the process to move towards greater empathy and understanding, and to uphold certain core values. Is that right?

Yes, but beyond that, it’s really about maintaining and spreading a commitment to social justice issues. That’s the driving force. How do we undo hatred and pain and move through conflict so that we can move forward as a campus, or as a student organization, or a democracy? We have to have those difficult conversations.

Building relationships is the first stage. People have to get to know each other and share their personal stories, which allows their multiple identities to come out. The second stage is to understand different social identities, how some are denigrated and subject to discrimination. This is where students start to connect personal experience to systemic and structural forms of oppression. It’s really about understanding how this takes multiple forms and manifests in different ways, so they can see and recognize it. Then there are conversations about hot topics.

But you don’t start with the hot topics of the day?

You cannot start there without building some skills first. In the beginning they learn active listening, and they practice repeating back what someone said. It’s a great technique for any kind of conflict, actually, because one thing we find is that people just want to be heard. “I want you to hear what I have to say” a conflict partner may think, and sometimes, the other person hearing something for the first time can lead to understanding.

If I understand correctly, this is a way for people to begin to understand that they are someone who matters in their community—which can be a classroom, or a campus, or a country.

Exactly. Active listening is so vital because even in these exercises, students might be focused on what they’re going to do after class, so they’re not engaged in the dialogue. They have to be shown the value of it—of being able to engage in such a way that they can repeat back what they’ve heard, even though they may not agree with it, and to follow it by asking a question.

So there are unproductive outcomes that conflict can lead to—someone might retreat, or feel silenced, or even have their ideas hardened in a way that legitimizes or perpetuates their anger—but there is also the possibility for reconciliation and coming together to build alliances. What other productive outcomes might dialogues achieve? 

You have to really think about growth in this area as something people do throughout their lives. There are students who leave the class and I know they need two or three more dialogue experiences before they’re ready to facilitate, because I know they prefer to avoid conflict. Or they are searching for the “right” answer, and sometimes there aren’t right answers. This happens with some of our students, here at UCLA. They’ve been rewarded for getting the right answer their whole academic life, and suddenly they’re thrown into this situation, which calls for a different kind of cognitive development, so they are able to handle ambiguity and be comfortable with it. That, to me, is one of the goals. In addition to that, they have to maintain awareness of the broader, social justice goal—one where we are working towards being able to diminish inequitable outcomes.

Is this possible if the different parties are defining social justice in different ways?

Yes, I think it’s entirely possible. When I end a class, I know the students are at different stages of development. But overwhelmingly, they’re intuitive thinkers, and they’re going to be great dialoguers wherever they go, and it’s not because they got the right answer. It’s because they have the skills, and they know how to be questioners. They are attuned to encouraging people to speak their mind. There are others who may need two or three more sessions, but the course opens their eyes for the first time because they’re talking about things they would have never talked about with anyone else.

To what extent have the dynamics in these classes changed in the wake of Trump’s candidacy and/or election?

The topics, for one. Immigration is a huge one and undocumented students are stepping forward in the training. They’re willing to be identified and to be engaged in dialogue, which is fabulous. We do have Trump supporters show up, and they express feeling marginalized in other classes at UCLA. I don’t know if they come into our dialogues thinking they’re going to be able to articulate their views better.

Do you get the sense that they’re able to draw on those experiences—what they perceive as marginalization—to forge empathy toward other students who are experiencing marginalization?  

I think they begin to learn to see it. They can articulate why they support Trump, or why they believe that he was the only candidate who supported the issues they care about. At least other people can begin to understand their thinking.

So even if their presence represents a symbolic and tangible threat to other members of the community, the process humanizes them to some extent in the eyes of other students?  

Yes, and that’s a good point. I think it does that, but it also humanizes other people to them as well. There was one student who was pained when we talked about LGBTQ issues, for religious reasons. Still, she always participated, so I have to give her credit for that. We have to give people credit as they go through something like this, which is quite painful for them. I wouldn’t say they let anybody off the hook, because that’s not the point, but they do understand that people are at different stages of development and understanding of these issues. I call it a mutual learning environment. I’m learning from the students as well.

At this moment, what leaves you hopeful?

 The students, because they’re amazing. The way they talk about issues and show consideration for each other. Their skills are so much stronger than mine were as an undergraduate. To be able to do this now, at this stage of their lives, is so important. If we could get high school students to do it, that would be even better. The earlier they know how to deal with conflict and understand the beauty of diversity, the stronger their skills will be. That’s what makes me hopeful. It makes me feel like I’m here and I’m doing this teaching for a reason.