Small groups are wonderful! In the fall of 2015 with assistance of Dr. Maat Lewis Phd., associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and Dr. Jeff Muller Phd., a Brooklyn-based clinical psychologist, I hosted the very first Contact & Conversation racism reduction event. Contact & Conversation, an outreach component of the Ambient Noise Mindfulness-Based Racism Reduction Program, is a grassroots effort designed to bring together everyday people in various cities across the U.S. with the common goal of reducing racism through mindfulness meditation, applied social psychology, physical contact, and conversation. The foundational inspiration for my design of Contact & Conversation came from several sources including Taoist/Zen meditation and philosophy, Chinese medicine, a Taoist yoga system called Meridian Touch, applied social psychology, the Contact Hypothesis, and the small group oriented Jigsaw Classroom teaching technique created by Elliot Aronson (The Jigsaw Classroom, 2016). The Jigsaw technique, called so after the idea of breaking classrooms up into smaller pieces that fit back together again to complete an assigned goal, is at the heart of the conversational portion of the Contact & Conversation grassroots efforts in racism reduction.
The genesis of the Jigsaw Classroom came from Aronson witnessing first hand in the Austin Texas school district, the heated and violent hostilities between white and students of color. While a professor of psychology at the University of Texas Austin, he and his graduate students realized that a part of what helped fuel the tension between the races was the competitive nature of the traditional classroom setting. Aronson discovered that if you divide the classroom into smaller groups of 5 to 6 people and create goals that make students interdependent on each other, racism and hostilities from racism are greatly reduced. His system was introduced into the Austin school system in 1971 and the small group Jigsaw classrooms began showing a decrease in prejudice and stereotyping, higher self esteem, the mixing of races outside of the classroom, better performance on tests, reduced absenteeism, and a reduction in violence (Wikipedia, n.d.). The researched and proven positive effects of the small group design on ethical behaviors like greater abilities in problem solving and specificity of task orientation, a more democratic environment where people are heard and treated more equally, and a commonality of cohesiveness and mutual respect that grows from small groups was proven dramatically by Aronson in his work (Pennsylvania State University, 2016).
That fall evening in October of 2015 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, I witnessed the power of the small group design in person along with my co-facilitators. Approximately 20 people came to the event about 50% were white the other 50% were people of color. In the 2 hour event that included introductions of ourselves to everyone, and they to each other, there was clearly a natural tension in the room as everyone was gathered to connect around the uncomfortable issue of racism. Although everyone was in agreement that this was our stated goal there was mistrust and unease in the room. After speaking about the psychological underpinnings of white racism in america, accepting and acknowledging the many evil and harsh realities of what racism does in people’s lives, two rounds of meditation and Meridian Touch yoga where group participants paired off and physically connected with each other, and then a final conversation piece where the larger group was broken down into smaller group, a huge shift in the energy and feeling in the room occurred! By the time we finished our final meditation, had a brief verbal check in at the end and closed the event for evening we found the participants did not want to leave! Mostly everyone was chatting openly and in a friendly manner with each other, exchanging email address and cell numbers so they could connect and continue the conversations on their own. We actually had to ask people repeatedly to leave the event space because they were so into connecting with each other they lost track of time. Granted it was just the first step in healing race relations, and the conversations we had were real and they were emotionally painful, but we did make progress and it was amazing! The wonderfulness of the small group design in bringing everyone closer together created the intimacy one needs to get to know one another as a real person and not an outsider, and this can be a great catalyst to developing compassion and understanding that leads to real healing personally and in society.
Pennsylvania State University. (2016). Lesson 11: Small Groups.
[Online Lecture]. Retrieved April 8, 2016 from
The Jigsaw Classroom. (2016). Retrieved April 8, 2016, from https://www.jigsaw.org/
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Jigsaw (Teaching Techniques). Retrieved April 8, 2016, from