Effective Educational Programs

Activists have long used education to proactively give people the skills and knowledge they need to overcome bias, unlearn harmful habits, and take up progressive activist work. Research has shown that this is a strong tactic, as educational programs are one of the most effective and impactful tactics for reducing prejudice, preventing oppressive behaviors, and encouraging social justice activism in individuals, organizations, and communities.


You may be interested in hosting an educational event for your nonprofit, cooperative, or activist group in order to reduce interpersonal oppression and ensure you have a safe and welcoming organizing space. You may also want to host educational programs for outside community members in order to reduce violence or oppression in your community. The goals of your educational program will help shape its form, but research has identified a number of successful best practices to help ensure your educational event is impactful.


The most effective strategies for hosting educational events include:

  • Use interactive, ongoing formats
  • Reproduce effective programs
    • Anti-rape and anti-violence programs
    • Intergroup dialogue


Use interactive, ongoing formats


Educational programs can focus on a variety of issues, depending on local needs and interests, including race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identity groups; anti-harassment, anti-violence, and anti-rape training; and the causes and consequences of inequality. Although many organizations use one-time informational lectures as their primary educational tool, research has shown that these events have limited effects on participants. They are, indeed, helpful, but there are many other educational programs that have substantially more impact.


The format of educational programs strongly impacts their effectiveness. One-time events and lectures on social justice have been shown to have small positive effects on participants, including increased knowledge about diversity,[1] reduced levels of prejudice,[2] heightened understanding of structural causes of inequality,[3] increased self-esteem,[4] and improved ability to identify harassment.[5] However, short educational programs may not produce lasting changes.[6]


Adding on repeated meetings dramatically improves the effectiveness of educational programs. Multi-day workshops, weekly or bi-weekly meetings, and semester-long college classes with a social justice focus are more effective at increasing knowledge than one-time events.[7] They also lead to more long-lasting behavior changes,[8] which can continue to impact participants years in the future.[9] Depending on their content, they can also lead to heightened privilege awareness[10] and reduced acceptance of rigid gender roles.[11]


In many cases, our time, funding, and participant constraints prevent us from hosting longer-term events, in which case one-time events can still be impactful. If you are able to, however, implementing repeated meetings can boost your participants’ takeaways.


Educational programs become even more effective at promoting social justice when they include interactive learning activities, such as discussion groups, speaker panels, perspective-taking assignments, writing prompts, and games. Interactive learning components lead to reduced prejudice,[12] increased self-esteem,[13] reduced levels of bullying,[14] increased support for victims of inequality,[15] and heightened understandings of diversity and privilege.[16] Practicing skills is also important for encouraging behavior change.[17]


An enormous body of research has also proved that contact with marginalized groups helps to reduce prejudice.[18] One meta-analysis combined the findings from 515 studies, covering a total of 250,000 participants in 38 countries, and found that contact with marginalized groups reduces prejudice, reduces anxiety about diversity, and increases empathy and perspective taking.[19] Having speaker panels, representative educators, and intergroup dialogue (discussed below) can greatly boost the effectiveness of educational programs attempting to challenge prejudice and oppression.


Overall, educational programs should focus on promoting good behavior, not condemning bad behavior. Approaches that focus on fearfully trying to avoid being oppressive and walking on eggshells lead to more effortful conversations, higher prejudice levels, and more anxiety around diversity.[20] One study even found that people who tried the hardest to avoid seeming prejudiced were viewed as even more biased.[21] In contrast, people have more relaxed and friendly conversations, lower prejudice levels, and feel more comfortable with people from diverse backgrounds when they are encouraged to focus on learning and growing.[22] Treat students as helpful allies, not potential enemies,[23] and focus on teaching people practical skills to promote social justice.[24]


Reproduce effective programs


Researchers and activists have already done the work of combining scientifically-proven best practices into effective, reproducible educational programs. Two of the most studied and most effective educational programs are anti-rape and anti-violence programs, and intergroup dialogue.


Anti-rape and anti-violence programs


Many studies have found rape and violence prevention programs to be effective at decreasing the acceptance of rape myths and abuse[25] and reducing the likelihood of committing harassment, violence, or rape.[26] Components of successful rape and violence prevention programs include treating men as allies who can help women (as opposed to potential rapists),[27] having single-gender programming to create an open space to discuss violence (as opposed to having mixed-gender groups),[28] discussing male-on-male rape in men’s programs to encourage empathy,[29] building communication and anger management skills,[30] and using peer training to display positive role models.[31]


The Men’s Program is an extraordinarily successful anti-rape program that has been documented by over a dozen studies to reduce sexual violence and increase bystander intervention. While many other anti-oppression educational programs need multiple sessions to be effective, The Men’s Program is a short, one-time session that can easily be planned and carried out. The creator of The Men’s Program, Dr. John Foubert, has graciously uploaded his practical guide to running the program on his website for free, which includes verbatim scripts and detailed descriptions on how to conduct every portion of the program. This means that activists can host this extraordinarily effective program in their communities with little to no upfront cost.


The website to download the materials for The Men’s Program is available at the following link: https://www.johnfoubert.com/free-stuff


Intergroup dialogue


Intergroup dialogue refers to structured discussion groups that aim to reduce prejudice and promote social justice. Intergroup dialogue brings together people from at least two different identity groups to meet weekly with two trained facilitators from different backgrounds. Participants use active and engaged learning, such as readings, experiential activities, writing assignments, and dialogue, to learn about inequality, identities, and current political events. Intergroup dialogue focuses on working with and through conflict, not trying to avoid it.


Many studies have proven intergroup dialogue to be enormously successful.[32] Intergroup dialogue increases awareness of inequality, increases understanding of and engagement with identity, promotes empathy, reduces prejudice, increases empowerment, and boosts confidence to create change. Intergroup dialogue differs from more traditional educational approaches to anti-oppression because intergroup dialogue actually leads individuals to become activists and advocates, as opposed to merely raising awareness.


The Public Conversations Project (2006) produced a comprehensive practical guide to intergroup dialogue, called Fostering Dialogue Across Divides. The guide includes information on how to plan and run a dialogue group; tips for facilitators; and many sample questions, handouts, and other materials. The guide is available for free at the following link: http://www.intergroupresources.com/rc/Fostering%20Dialogue%20Across%20Divides.pdf


Intergroup Resources, a website that compiles lists of quality resources related to intergroup dialogue, is another good website for interested activists to explore. You can browse their resources at the following link: http://www.intergroupresources.com/


NEXT SECTION: Effective Protest Strategies


[1] Monroe and Martinez-Marti 2008

[2] Monroe and Martinez-Marti 2008; Wells 1991

[3] Lopez, Gurin, and Nagda 1998

[4] Daníelsdóttir, O’Brien, and Ciao 2010; Wells 1991

[5] Kearney, Rochlen, and King 2004

[6] Flood 2005

[7] Borges, Banyard, and Moynihan 2008

[8] Flood 2005

[9] O’Neil and Carroll 1988

[10] Case 2007

[11] Scwartz, Magee, Griffin, and Dupuis 2004; Stake and Rose 1994

[12] Monroe and Martinez-Marti 2008; Reinhardt 1994; Walch, Sinkkanen, Swain, Francisco, Breaux, and Sjoberg 2012; Wells 1991

[13] Wells 1991

[14] Mitchell, Gray, Green, and Beninger 2014

[15] Lopez, Gurin, and Nagda 1998

[16] Case 2012; Monroe and Martinez-Marti 2008

[17] Burn 2009

[18] Carter and Murphy 2017; Corrigan, Morris, Michaels, Rafacz, and Rüsch 2012; Couture and Penn 2003; Herek and Capitanio 1996; Herek and McLemore 2013; Lewis 2011; Livingston, Milne, Fang, and Amari 2011; Mereish and Poteat 2015; Paluck and Green 2009; Pettigrew and Tropp 2008; Reinhardt 1994; Walch, Sinkkanen, Swain, Francisco, Breaux, and Sjoberg 2012

[19] Pettigrew and Tropp 2009

[20] Goff, Steele, and Davies 2008; Plant and Butz 2006; Shelton 2003; Trawalter, Adam, Chase-Lansdale, and Richeson 2012; Trawalter and Richeson 2006; West and Greenland 2016

[21] Plant and Butz 2006

[22] Goff, Steele, and Davies 2008; Murphy, Richeson, and Molden 2011; Stern and West 2014; Trawalter and Richeson 2006; West and Greenland 2016

[23] Foubert and Perry 2007

[24] Flood 2005

[25] Choate 2003; Flood 2005; Foshee, Reyes, Ennett, Cance, Bauman, and Bowling 2012; Foubert 2000; Foubert and Newberry 2006; Lonsway, Klaw, Berg, Waldo, Kothari, Mazurek, and Hegeman 1998

[26] Foshee, Bauman, Ennett, Linder, Benefield, and Suchindran 2004; Foshee, Reyes, Ennett, Cance, Bauman, and Bowling 2012; Foubert 2000; Foubert and Newberry 2006

[27] Foubert and Perry 2007

[28] Brecklin and Forde 2001; Flood 2005; Foubert and Newberry 2006

[29] Foubert and Newberry 2006; Foubert and Perry 2007

[30] Schwartz, Magee, Griffin, and Dupuis 2004

[31] Lonsway, Klaw, Berg, Waldo, Kothari, Mazurek, and Hegeman 1998

[32] Dessel, Woodford, Routenberg, and Breijak 2013; Dessel, Woodford, and Warren 2011; DeTurk 2006; Miller and Donner 2000; Nagda, Gurin, Sorensen, and Zúñiga 2009; Sanders and Mahalingam 2012


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