IGR program manager facilitates dialogues on identity


As a freshman at Ann Arbor’s Community High School, D. Alvarez participated in his first dialogue on race. Several years — and a master’s degree from U-M’s School of Social Work — later, Alvarez is helping to bring dialogues on different identities to the U-M community.

As the Student Life program manager for The Program on Intergroup Relations, Alvarez works with staff and student volunteers who facilitate workshops and dialogues for various groups on campus through the CommonGround program.

Outside of work, he shares with friends and family his experience as a fromager, or cheese expert, gained during an intense six-month stint at a specialty food shop in Brooklyn, New York.

“I have a pretty awesome community of friends. We hang out, play cards, go to speakers and have dinner parties,” he says. At those parties, Alvarez has a special talent to show off: cheese identification.

D. Alvarez is Student Life program manager for The Program on Intergroup Relations and an expert on cheese. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

As a fromager, Alvarez had to learn more than 500 types of cheese, be able to pair them with food and wine, create cheese plates and carry giant 100-pound wheels of cheese on his back. “I was really low on money at the time and basically got to eat for free every day, plus the skill is definitely transferrable. I’m kind of a hit of parties,” he says, giggling.

During the fromager job interview, Alvarez says he couldn’t claim any special knowledge of cheese, other than he always loved it and shared that love with his grandmother. “I think the reason they gave me the job was I told them I loved buying cheese from Zingerman’s. They were foodies, and said, ‘Zingerman’s? We know Zingerman’s.'”

On the U-M campus, those who know CommonGround get involved with the program by requesting a workshop on issues of their choice. They can be related to a specific incident or be more general, like allyhood development or an introduction to social identity. Student volunteers plan and conduct the workshops, in coordination with Alvarez and his student staff. To date, around 330 workshops have been conducted, reaching more than 10,000 students.

These types of workshops are rooted in the theories of intergroup dialogue, first developed at U-M and now found on campuses across the country. “This campus is really special in that there’s a lot of student energy and passion around social justice and activism,” Alvarez says.

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He also prepares students to facilitate semesterlong dialogues on topics including race, religion, sexual orientation, gender and ability status. “It’s about being really aware of your own identities and how they’re impacting the space, and also others’ identities, reactions and responses,” says Alvarez of what makes a good facilitator.

Alvarez says his mother, father and two sisters are social workers, so it was inevitable that he’d become one. He loves his job, and speaks of the importance of IGR’s dialogue: “It gives students voice and agency around issues they may have never been able to vocalize before.”

Outside of work, Alvarez also enjoys bird watching, a pastime shared by his family. He got his first pair of binoculars at age 3. His favorite bird is the prothonotary warbler.

“It’s one of the brightest colors I’ve ever seen in nature,” he says, of the bird’s glowing yellow head and breast, and blue-gray back and wings. He says it’s striking how its colors reflect brightly, when the warbler is perched on a branch growing above water.

— Record Associate Editor Kevin Brown contributed to this report.


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