Cultivating Contact

A Guide to Building Bridges and Meaningful Connections Between Groups


September 27, 2022

The United States is in the process of reckoning with many forms of social division, but it is also facing a moment of immense possibility. With deepening divides occurring and being fomented across racial, religious, socioeconomic, partisan, and geographic lines, trust in others has declined and members of distinct groups are more isolated from each other than ever. Many forces seek to exploit these vulnerabilities and stoke fear and anxiety about group differences. Yet our nation’s history shows us that, even in the midst of these challenges, Americans from all walks of life have found ways to come together across lines of difference to solve critical community problems.

How we choose to respond to group differences is ultimately up to us. We can take steps either to build walls or build bridges in the face of these differences. When we feel insecure, unsafe, or threatened, our initial instinct is to build walls, in an effort to protect ourselves and our groups. This instinctual response can help us to feel more secure and protected in the short term; but one long-term consequence is that we may grow more distrustful and fearful of people who are not like “us” and whom we don’t personally know. Worse still, challenging social and economic conditions can exacerbate these tendencies, such that we start to develop competitive narratives that pit “us” against “them” and further deepen existing divisions between groups.

Instead, when we build bridges, we take steps to engage with people across lines of difference. Engaging with one another in meaningful and authentic ways often requires us to step outside of our comfort zone, as we begin to share our life stories and experiences openly while attending deeply and respectfully to those shared by others. From interacting with others with this spirit of openness and attentiveness, we invite others into our worlds, just as they invite us into theirs. By doing so, we not only develop greater mutual understanding, but we are also likely to become more invested in each other’s lives and to care more about each other’s groups—and this emotional investment and caring is what compels us to work toward improving our communities and social institutions to ensure that everyone feels like they belong.

In this guide, we describe how to set the stage for people from different backgrounds to engage with each other in ways that foster trust and belonging, while also drawing on their similarities and differences to solve community problems. We review a number of strategies that encourage people from different groups to work together as equals, so that they can share ideas and perspectives, and co-create new initiatives in collaboration and across group divides. We also provide materials that can help organizations begin to envision how they might assess the effectiveness of their contact programs.

This “starter” survey is designed to help organizations begin to envision how survey items in the Cultivating Contact guide can be used to assess participants’ attitudes and behavioral intentions, and how these attitudes and intentions may shift as a result of participating in contact programs.

Cultivating Contact was produced in partnership with Welcoming America and the Intergroup Relations and Social Justice Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Intergroup contact refers to situations where people from different social groups—such as people from different racial, ethnic, religious, or national groups—interact with each other. A large body of research confirms that having people from different social groups meaningfully engage with each other can help to reduce prejudice and increase social cohesion.

Contact between groups has been shown to reduce prejudice by reducing feelings of anxiety and increasing empathy for members of other groups. With greater contact, we become less apprehensive about engaging across lines of difference, and we develop a greater capacity to relate to and empathize with those who are different from us.8,9 However, this process takes time; it requires opportunities for people from different groups to engage with each other repeatedly over many interactions. Once people from different groups begin to open up and trust each other, they become more able to not only see the ways in which they are similar, but also to understand and gain a deeper respect for the ways in which their perspectives and experiences differ, too.

As you explore the types of programs your community or organization could implement to create opportunities for contact between groups, keep in mind that you don’t need to start from scratch. We hope insights from this guide will help you to adapt existing programs, or to embark on new projects that enhance opportunities for people from different groups to engage meaningfully with each other. We provide guidance about how these activities might be structured so that people from different backgrounds are not only able to work together productively and cooperatively, but in ways that can also encourage greater support for bridge-building efforts across different groups within the larger community.

Please keep in mind that providing opportunities for contact between groups is only one piece of the puzzle—and there are many other pieces that should connect with contact programs to achieve our broader goal of building inclusive communities. Indeed, as we will describe later in this guide, contact programs are likely to be most effective when they are bolstered by other features of the local environment, such as norms that support cross-group relations and encouragement from community leaders and organizations, efforts to address long-standing structural inequalities, and equitable access to resources that allow people from all groups to actively participate in their communities.

When people from different groups initially come together, they might feel cautious or uncomfortable about getting to know others who are unknown or unfamiliar to them. This is completely normal, and it suggests the programs you are about to implement are going to have an important and deep impact on the people and communities with whom you are working. At the same time, this initial discomfort also suggests that it might take some time for trust to develop and for deep connections between people from different groups to grow. Social science research suggests that people need to experience repeated and sustained interactions with members of other groups for meaningful changes to emerge in their attitudes and behaviors toward those groups.10,11 Below are several tips you might use to build connections between groups and maximize the chance that your program will have a positive and lasting impact. We recognize that, depending on the local context and communities involved, it may not always be possible to implement all the tips outlined below in every program. Nonetheless, if you wish to achieve the greatest impact from contact-based programs, we recommend adhering to the following guidelines to the fullest extent possible.

Balance Participation of People from Different Groups

Balanced participation means intentionally working to recruit similar numbers of people from different groups to participate in your contact program. It is important to ensure that comparable numbers of people from different groups participate, so that members of each group will feel well-represented during the program and no one will feel like they don’t belong. Balanced participation can also mean ensuring that the needs, interests, priorities, and perspectives of each group are taken into account when contact programs are being designed and implemented. For people from different groups to feel included in the planning process, communities and organizations should foster initial opportunities for collaboration between people from different groups, who can co-create program activities and offer feedback at each stage of the process. If your organizing team only includes people from one group, make a point of bringing members of other groups into the planning process; in this way, you can move away from designing programs for other groups and instead move toward designing programs with other groups. Importantly, including perspectives from different groups during the planning process can help organizers choose activities that would be of interest to members of each group, to identify possible barriers to program participation, and to specify resources or outreach strategies that might facilitate participation among people from each group. Achieving balanced participation across groups can depend on several factors such as the demographics that make up your local community, the history of relations between groups in your local community, and the accessibility and relevance of your organization’s programs, among others. Reaching out to organizations and community partners with whom you already work can be a fruitful way to explore possibilities for co-sponsoring activities that would be of mutual benefit, and for recruiting program participants from different groups.

At a time when the United States faces many growing divides across lines of difference, finding ways to foster connections between groups has never been more important. Our ability to shape and navigate how we live together as a society fundamentally depends on how we engage with one another, and how we cultivate meaningful relationships across group boundaries.

As this guide highlights, there are many ways in which we can build positive relations between people from different backgrounds, and community organizations play critical roles in making cross-group interaction and collaboration both impactful and sustainable over time.

Our hope is that this guide will provide you, and your local communities and organizations, with helpful evidence-based recommendations on how to structure contact programs effectively, along with useful tips and best practices for implementing and facilitating these programs. Whether you are developing new contact-based programs or infusing existing programs with insights from contact theory and research, we humbly thank you for your efforts to strengthen our social fabric and build healthier, more resilient communities for generations to come.

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