Unity Project launches Vanderbilt Unity Lab; applications open for program trainers

Apply here to become a trainer with the Vanderbilt Unity Lab.

To cultivate transformational connections across campus, the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy will launch the Vanderbilt Unity Lab this spring. Utilizing a first-of-its-kind approach, the Unity Lab will integrate four internationally recognized training modules into a single program to equip Vanderbilt community members with the tools necessary to strengthen the bonds of cultural affinity  and promote civil discourse. The Vanderbilt Unity Lab is funded by a generous three-year, $750,000 grant from the Ford Foundation and seeks to develop and test best practices for forging intercultural understanding.

“Community is a fundamental building block of unity,” said John Geer, the Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University. “When we can value those who think differently from us and respect their point of view, we can begin to create genuine ties that make it possible to solve our pressing problems. This approach helps forge an environment of free expression that is central to Chancellor Diermeier’s vision for our university. The Vanderbilt Unity Lab, I believe, will be an important part of making this vision a reality.”

“Our team has been carefully searching for a program capable of making a meaningful, tangible difference within our campus community,” said Dr. André L. Churchwell, vice chancellor for outreach, inclusion and belonging and chief diversity officer at Vanderbilt. “We believe the Vanderbilt Unity Lab’s unique combination of training modules will have a lasting impact on our campus and are hopeful to expand its reach beyond our community as well.”

The Unity Lab is accepting applications for program training positions now. If you’re interested, please apply HERE, or reach out to Shevonne Nelson Dillingham, program director for intercultural engagement at the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy. Nelson Dillingham has an extensive background in diversity, equity and inclusion and holds a master’s degree in college student personnel. She has over 15 years’ experience working with private and public organizations helping them enhance their DEI efforts.


“At the Ford Foundation, we invest in transformative ideas that drive positive social change, and the Vanderbilt Unity Lab is an important endeavor to discern the most effective tools we can develop to form and strengthen diverse communities,” said Darren Walker, Ford Foundation president and advisory board member for the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy.

The Unity Lab’s work fits within the larger mission of the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy to make a meaningful contribution to bridging America’s deepest differences through reliance evidence and compelling arguments. The Unity Lab will implement that vision at first on a micro scale, collecting data on the efficacy of the trainings with the goal of developing an effective and efficient intercultural training program that can be replicated at other institutions and organizations.

The four training models to be utilized include:

  • Intercultural Development Inventory, an assessment of baseline intercultural competency, followed by an individual plan to improve their own intercultural competency.
  • Narrative 4, a story exchange model to build empathy, learn how to be curious, and practice the art of listening.
  • Restorative practice pedagogy, developed by the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a foundational concept for how to approach community-building that leads to effective relationships and communication, increased compassion and empathy, conflict resolution, and movement toward healing.
  • Millions of Conversations, a seven-step model designed to help individuals listen more, humanize and empathize with those they disagree with, even if those disagreements are deep and longstanding. MoC will help students to engage directly with its #PledgetoListen programming, which provides tools to help these individuals to judge less and listen more.

“Millions of Conversations was thrilled to collaborate with the Unity Project on this grant proposal. We believe that our model, which is rooted in helping people think stronger, feel steadier, and share a brighter future, is an ideal complement to the other training modules,” said Samar Ali, founding president and CEO of Millions of Conversations and Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy co-chair. “We look forward to collectively creating a ripple effect of meaningful and lasting change across the Vanderbilt community and beyond.”

Following the completion of the program trainers’ accreditation in these modules, applications will open for the first cohort of 50 Vanderbilt community members to participate in the program. Stay tuned in April 2023 for further announcements on the first round of applications.

The first cohort of 50 students, faculty and staff participants will begin the program during the fall 2023 semester.

About the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy 

The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy is a nonpartisan initiative that aims to elevate research and evidence-based reasoning into the national conversation. Drawing on original research, evidence-based papers and crucial conversations from Vanderbilt’s world-class faculty and visionary thought leaders of all political persuasions, the timely endeavor aims to give policymakers and the public tools to combat conspiracy theories and unfounded ideology with evidence, data and respectful discourse. The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy can make a meaningful contribution to solving society’s most pressing challenges and bridging our deepest differences.

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