Open Dialogue

June 4, 2019
Students take notes and listen during an MSU Dialogues session.

Students take notes and listen during an MSU Dialogues session.

Opportunity on campus and in local schools teaches empathy, listening to influence change

By Lauren Knapp

The idea occurred to Donna Rich Kaplowitz on the way to Thanksgiving dinner in 2014.

She had been teaching classes on civic engagement and social justice in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) at Michigan State University. She heard from students that what they were learning in class didn’t necessarily align with the views or beliefs of family members. In some cases, it had even led to shouting arguments around the Thanksgiving table.

“I wondered: How can we combat this? How can we learn to better understand why people believe what they do, and share our own thoughts in a more civil manner?” Rich Kaplowitz said.

First, she thought, people needed to pause. They needed to slow the conversation to address a topic further, but in a way that wasn’t immediately alienating or combative.

Then, they needed curiosity. Individuals needed to acknowledge or ask what the other was saying, opening a lane to show respect and interest in exploring dialogue.

Everyone needed to listen more. There is a difference between hearing a person in order to think of a response and active, engaged listening.

Sharing stories and speaking the truth needed to happen more, too. Instead of shouting, people should calmly share stories that explain their viewpoints.

In short, everyone could learn to become more open to listening to others’ ideas and viewpoints.

They could become PALS.

Donna Rich Kaplowitz works with students during an MSU Dialogues session.

Donna Rich Kaplowitz works with students during an MSU Dialogues session.


Since then, the PALS Approach in the MSU Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives has become a pillar of the office’s Building Inclusive Communities Series (see below).

A faculty associate in the inclusion office and an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education, Rich Kaplowitz is facilitating change even further.

Recently, she helped create the extracurricular MSU Dialogues program, in which MSU students learn to listen and create change by building powerful relationships across differences.The first official run of the program, in spring 2018, explored race. Over the course of eight weeks, 80 undergraduate and graduate students of all races and majors learned about their own identities and how to better understand the identities of others.

The goals of the program are to:

  1. Increase personal awareness, raise consciousness about privilege and oppression
  2. Build relationships through storytelling and empathetic listening
  3. Explore ways of working together toward greater equity and justice, and strengthen capacity to create social change

“The response and growth from the program is astonishing,” Rich Kaplowitz said.

In an initial survey of participants prior to beginning MSU Dialogues, only 35 percent of respondents strongly agreed that they “listen[ed] actively to others.” In the exit survey,* that number had grown to 89 percent. In another query, 52 percent agreed or strongly agreed they had “developed concrete strategies to work toward greater equity and justice” prior to participating in Dialogues. The total increased to 92 percent at the end of the program.

“I have been so changed for the better because of the MSU Dialogues program,” said Michael Kosuth, who graduated in May 2018 with a double major in RCAH and secondary education (minoring in teaching English as a second language). He also completed his teaching internship in Portland, Mich.

Kosuth was part of the initial pilot program and has since become a facilitator. “I saw [Dialogues] as a useful way to communicate in a productive way, which will be useful in my teaching.”

MSU Dialogues 2018 facilitators.

MSU Dialogues 2018 facilitators. Photo courtesy of Donna Rich Kaplowitz.

Participants also felt the experience raised their consciousness about bias. When asked if they were open to new ideas and ways of understanding race, 61 percent strongly agreed at the beginning, and 94 percent did at the end.

“Throughout MSU Dialogues,” Rich Kaplowitz continued, “these students are learning concrete skills that they can use throughout life. They are learning how to treat everyone with inherent human dignity, to talk civilly about things with which they disagree. They are learning to listen—the cornerstone of dialogue.”


Listening is also what brought Rich Kaplowitz—and students from the MSU College of Education—into local classrooms starting in 2012.

Rich Kaplowitz teamed up with Dorinda Carter Andrews, who now serves as associate dean for equity and inclusion in the College of Education. They started Project LEAD, an afterschool program on developing leadership and diversity skills for students in grades 6-12. The program was a collaboration among the College of Education, RCAH, Lansing School District and East Lansing Public Schools. Throughout, they kept hearing feedback from students and parents that the material was important: Why was this an afterschool program? Why wasn’t this in classrooms during the school day?

After years of feedback, growth and changes, Rich Kaplowitz met with public school administrators and teachers who supported the project and developed a course with the Department of Teacher Education that launched in fall 2017.

Rich Kaplowitz and Assistant Professor Jennifer VanDerHeide offered the course, a Teacher Education lab section (TE 407/408) for preservice secondary English seniors, focused on a program called Intercultural Dialogues. Specifically geared to help future Spartan educators learn how to be facilitators across difference, the program has many of the same themes as MSU Dialogues—but immerses the messaging into East Lansing high school English classrooms.

In the fall, 16 MSU students learned methods of facilitating dialogues while simultaneously spending time observing in classrooms.

“In the spring, we taught the lesson in front of the MSU class before we would go to teach lessons in East Lansing High School,” said Taylor Hall. A 2010 ELHS graduate, Hall is part of the Urban Educators Cohort Program at MSU and graduated in December 2018. “There were lessons where we discovered something was problematic, and we shouldn’t use that material; it was great to be able to tweak it before really presenting it.”

Taylor Hall teaches an Intercultural Dialogues lesson in a high school classroom.

Taylor Hall teaches an Intercultural Dialogues lesson in a high school classroom. Photo courtesy of Donna Rich Kaplowitz. 

The MSU students then facilitated 11 lessons on intercultural dialogue topics in all freshmen and half of the sophomore classrooms at ELHS, becoming what Rich Kaplowitz calls “near-peer facilitators,” a key component of the program.

“High school students will be more open to receiving information from people whom they identify as similar in age and experience,” Rich Kaplowitz explained.

In fact, a survey of 350 high schoolers who took the courses indicated that 77 percent of respondents enjoyed learning from the near-peer facilitators.

Led by MSU students, the lessons included detailing the history of racism in the U.S., exploring and understanding group privilege and the cycle of socialization, and learning concrete skills about how to interrupt individual and institutional oppression.

“I felt so prepared [for my] internship year after taking this course,” Kosuth said. In addition to participating in MSU Dialogues, he also took Rich Kapolowitz’s lab course. “We spent so much time in the high school, in front of our class. I don’t think I’d feel nearly as confident without this course.”

Data from surveys prior to and after the intercultural lessons showed the curriculum increased understanding of new material among high school participants. Previously, only 16 percent of respondents indicated they knew what “micro-aggression” was. In the post survey, 44 percent said they understood the term, which refers to everyday encounters of subtle discrimination that people of various marginalized identities experience.

Further, the surveys indicated a possible lasting impact. Only 16 percent agreed they knew “how to respond when someone tells a racial joke” prior to Intercultural Dialogues. In the end, 95 percent said they had learned strategies for those situations.

Since Intercultural Dialogues entered ELHS classrooms, Rich Kaplowitz and the MSU seniors have worked with more than 1,000 high school students over the course of three years.


The success led the East Lansing school board to make it official: in spring 2017, members voted unanimously to adopt Intercultural Dialogues as part of the curriculum. It is now being taught in all freshmen and sophomore English classes, with full support from the school and growing collaboration with parents. This is unique, Rich Kaplowitz said, as many other programs like this across the state and country are extracurricular, not embedded in the school day.

“We learn more about this course, the students and its impact every year,” Rich Kaplowitz said. “Everyone values learning to talk about these different issues.”

Kosuth agrees. “Intercultural Dialogues is unequivocally the best professional development experience I’ve ever had. In combination with MSU Dialogues, it has impacted every aspect of my life.”

Michael Kosuth shares his experiences with Dialogues at a Spring 2018 final presentation.

Michael Kosuth shares his experiences with Dialogues at a Spring 2018 final presentation. Photo courtesy of Donna Rich Kaplowitz. 


When Rich Kaplowitz says “this really works,” or describes the measurable change she’s seen in students and community members alike, it’s easy to believe her. The analytics and the continuous strong feedback prove these offerings are not only helpful, but necessary.

She is passionate about collaboration to create lasting social change—and she’s actually doing it by implementing programs in growing spaces.

“Dr. Rich Kaplowitz knows what she’s talking about,” Hall added. “I really like her. I respect her as a person. She once told us that the tips and lessons we learned would be helpful beyond our careers, and I so agree with that.”

Moving ahead, TE English seniors at MSU will continue to have the opportunity to participate in an Intercultural Dialogues lab section and learn dialogic skills before their internship year.

Meanwhile, East Lansing High School is considering offering the program on additional topics to upperclassmen, and expanding the curriculum to include youth-generated research on related topics.

At MSU, the Dialogues program continues, and grows. New Dialogues specifically for MSU faculty, in addition to the original undergraduate and graduate race Dialogues sessions, were established in fall 2018. In spring 2019, three separate sessions of the program on race will be offered, in addition to a new offering on gender issues for an additional three cohorts.

“I believe every student should partake in these programs, learn these skills,” she concluded. “The skills one learns from participating in dialogues can be used in every aspect of life from the kitchen to international negotiations.”

* 85% response rate to the exit survey about the MSU Dialogues program in spring 2018, using a scale of Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree, Strongly Agree to individuate responses. 

Building Inclusive Community Series

This series in the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives builds upon Michigan State University’s core values and puts them into sharper focus, with an emphasis on inclusion. The program aims to help every student realize their full potential, and then to carry on the message of inclusion around the globe to build even more communities where diversity and differences are acknowledged as strengths.

The program includes:

  1. Setting up an inclusive classroom centered around dialogue, listening and community.
  2. Creating a dialogue to build meaningful relationships across differences.
  3. Facilitating intercultural dialogue effectively and peacefully.
  4. Identifying strategies for managing “hot moments” in the classroom.
  5. Interrupting bias by using a variety of methods through the PALS approach.
  6. Understanding microaggressions—subtle acts of discrimination—and their impact.

Read more

Donna Rich Kaplowitz published an expanded look on Intercultural Dialogues in Phi Delta Kappan with Jasmine A. Lee (MSU Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative) and Sheri L. Seyka (chair of the English department at East Lansing High School). Both are MSU alumni: Seyka earned her teaching certificate in 1995, and later earned a master’s in Education in 1999. Lee graduated in 2016 with a Ph.D. in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE).

Rich Kaplowitz and Seyka, along with Shayla Reese Griffen, are also writing a book about their race dialogue practice. “Race Dialogues: A Facilitator’s Guide to Tackling the Elephant in the Classroom” was published by Teachers College Press in May 2019.