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Project Funded to Promote Civility in Classroom Discourse

Can campuses riven by conflict over the executive order on immigration, buildings named after slavery proponents, and incidences of hate on campus possibly find relief through methods employed by family therapists? Apparently so, given a $215,000 grant award by the University of Connecticut to Essential Partners to “shift classroom cultures toward more open, curious, and intellectually humble modes of dialogue,” according to a news release.

John Sarrouf is Essential Partners’ director of program development.John Sarrouf is Essential Partners’ director of program development.

The release notes that the grant will fund a two-year project to develop, test, and disseminate new methodology directed toward peaceful dialogue in the classroom — the project is led by Essential Partners and academic partners from Tufts University, Southern Methodist University, Bridgewater College, and Gordon College.

“We start with a desire for people to more deeply understand one another, so it works beautifully on a college campus where … we’re in a community. We are stuck together. This is my home, this is your home,” says John Sarrouf, Essential Partners’ director of program development and strategic partnerships and the leader of this new project.

However, “you come from a very different place than I do, you have a different set of beliefs, a different identity, different experiences and background, so now we have to figure out how to live together and how to … really live into the fullness of our diversity,” Sarrouf added.

Sarrouf noted that, in the late 1980s, family therapists working for what is now known as Essential Partners looked out on the national scene and realized that many hot-button national issues were being dealt with in the dysfunctional ways practitioners observed some individuals relating to each other in family therapy. Thus, Essential Partners found an opening to extend the scope of their work.

“We developed a model for dialogue in small groups that allowed people to become curious about one another, to help people re-tell their own story and not to be defined by somebody else’s story of them. And to make more space for more voices to be heard. Not just the loudest, most polarizing ones,” Sarrouf says.

According to Sarrouf, Essential Partners then “began to get calls to do that work on more issues in more communities, eventually universities, which is a really perfect place for this. This work works best in a community that cares about being a community, but also has deep convictions, values, and world views that may be in conflict with one another.”

The release notes that, through the University of Connecticut’s humanities department, the Intellectual Humility in Public Discourse (IHPD) project is an ongoing effort to promote more ideological open-mindedness, empathy, and connectivity in academic discourse.

Research from earlier cycles of the IHPD initiative has established the importance of humility for classroom cultures in higher education by creating rigorous, thriving academic cultures. Essential Partners’ contribution to the IHPD initiative is titled, “The Dialogic Classroom: Teaching for Humility and Civic Engagement.”

“We want people to have their deep beliefs, have their convictions, but also hold them in community with enough intellectual humility to stay engaged with each other,” adds Sarrouf.

Essential Partners is a Boston-based nonprofit that works with communities to create dialogue among people with deep differences in identity, belief, and experience, writes Essential Partners Communications Director Jessica Weaver in an email. For more information on Essential Partners, visit For more information about the IHPD project and this particular grant award, visit

David Pluviose can be reached at [email protected].

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