By: Rachel Cain—News Editor
From the first welcome event at New Student Orientation to the final speech at graduation, students frequently hear about the famous “UD Community.” However, some students have begun to critically examine who is—or isn’t—included in that community. Students in the Creating Inclusive Community mini-course are striving to make people at UD more welcoming and aware of diversity issues on our campus and in the world at large.
“That is the beautiful thing about this initiative, is that students are in a place where they want to create change,” expressed Patty Alvarez, Ph.D., assistant dean of students and director of Multicultural Affairs. “They’re able to work with their peers and faculty and staff with the goal of creating change.”
Students in UDI 377, Understanding, Respecting and Connecting II: Taking Action, are implementing action plans to improve awareness of diversity on campus through the knowledge they gained in a corresponding mini-course last semester.
Last spring, students “[explored] historical and social implications of diversity and privilege, [examined] their own privilege and dialogue with others about diversity and social justice, and [designed] sustainable actions to dismantle injustice in the UD community and beyond,” according to the course syllabus.
Leslie Picca, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the department of sociology, anthropology and social work, had the inspiration for this mini-course when she and Ruth Thompson-Miller, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the sociology department, took a group of four students to the conference in 2012. Since then, she and an increasing number of students and faculty have attended the conference, culminating in the mini-course last semester that enabled the university to send 50 faculty, staff and students to attend the 2015 White Privilege Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.
The White Privilege Conference is “a conference that examines the challenging concepts of privilege and oppression and offers solutions and team building strategies to work toward a more equitable world,” according to its official website.
Students who participated in the mini-course last semester had the opportunity to interact with thousands of individuals from across the nation and world committed to matters of privilege and oppression in all capacities, not only as it pertains to racism.
“The conference is a place not like any other place,” said Brandon Rush, a senior psychology major. “Engaging with so many people from around the country and around the world who are into [social justice], you know that you’re not alone and that the work will be worth it.”
Last semester’s mini-course was co-taught by Thomas Morgan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the English department, and Kelly Bohrer, director of community engaged learning in the Fitz Center. This semester’s course is taught by Morgan.
Other faculty members who participated in the conference and mini-course include: Patty Alvarez, Ph.D, Amy Anderson, Ph.D., Simanti Dasgupta, Ph.D., Jamie Longazel, Ph.D., Leslie Picca, Ph.D., Patricia Reid, Ph.D., Lisa Rismiller, Ruth Thompson-Miller, Ph.D. and Ernesto Velasquez, Ph.D.
All of these faculty members volunteered to be involved in the initiative because they care deeply about the issue of diversity.
“I’m hoping that students really feel empowered to talk with each other and to look at the issues that concern them in their lives as students here,” expressed Amy Anderson, Ph.D., the executive director of the Center for International Programs. “I hope they also see that there’s a committed group of faculty and staff that also care and are concerned about improving the campus community for all students.”
“This [mini-course] is not intended to be a top-down, where the faculty and staff know a lot and the students don’t,” Morgan elaborated. “It’s more intended to be a growing experience for everyone involved.”
Now, students are tasked with putting what they learned in class last semester and at the conference into action.
“We had to assess what we learned at the conference and then assess what that can look like at on campus,” Rush said.
In order to accomplish this, the mini-course participants divided into several different groups to tackle specific matters of diversity and privilege on campus. For instance, one of the action-based groups is working with AVIATE to “get discussions of privilege and oppression going on in the monthly CBMs in first-year areas,” Rush said.
However, members of the mini-course hope to expand discussions of diversity beyond just first-year students. Another group is focusing on developing safe spaces where students “are welcomed and encouraged” to engage in conversations about privilege and oppression, explained Joey Ferber, a senior English major.
To further this initiative, the Creating Inclusive Community cohort hosted an open dialogue Sept. 29 in response to presidential candidate Ben Carson’s recent appearance at the UD Arena in regard to his recent anti-Muslim comments.
Students forming the mini-course are also collaborating with Dayton Peer Educators, an upcoming group that will interact with students to help explain matters of social justice. The organization will be similar to the Green Dot Peer Educators, Rush explained, but with an emphasis on “privilege and oppression” rather than sexual assault.
Ferber also mentioned that the mini-course is interested in collaborating with Green Dot.
“The best way to raise awareness is to join up with other groups who are already focusing on these issues,” Ferber said.
Building relationships with other organizations on campus and recruiting members will assist the group in spreading the message of diversity with other people and groups on campus.
The goal is to “provide ways to bring conversations about diversity to groups that already exist and help them—which is in a way helping everyone—think about diversity,” Morgan said.
To further spread awareness on campus, other students in the mini-course are developing a social media presence and creating a logo for the initiative.
“We want everyone to know there’s a strong presence of students committed to talking about matters of diversity on campus,” Ferber said. “We want people with ideas and passion.”
“One [goal of the mini-course] is to engage with issues of diversity on campus that are not being successfully addressed right now,” Morgan said. “UD lauds itself as a community, so how can we expand our definition of ‘community’ to better incorporate people or groups that don’t always feel as welcomed as the majority dominant groups do?”
Racially, the certain majority among undergraduate students at UD is the white demographic. Out of the total 8,226 full-time undergraduate students at UD, 6,397 are white, 243 identify as black or African-American, 272 as Hispanic, 939 as non-residential alien, 101 as Asian, seven as American Indian or Alaskan Native, 153 as two or more Races, 88 as unidentified and 21 from the Bangalore India Program.
“I think white privilege is those invisible benefits that many white folks tend to regularly rely on,” said Picca, who has written two books on race and ethnicity. “Oftentimes that folks like myself tend to take for granted without recognizing that it is an unearned benefit that many people, especially racial and ethnic minorities, don’t necessarily enjoy.”
Having a space where students are open and willing to discussing matters of privilege and oppression was a draw for the students who enrolled in the mini-course.
“Finding like-minded people who are frustrated with issues of white privilege” is one of the reasons Ferber was interested in the course.
“I was amazed by what [the course] did to me and what it did to my perspective,” said Ronnie Colborn, a senior English major.
“At a space like UD, it’s sometimes easy to disregard potential problems that exist [regarding diversity] because they don’t affect the majority,” Morgan elaborated. “And, the majority is never required or forced to engage with [these issues]. That’s part of what privilege is: the ability to not pay attention to the experiences of others.”
Beyond learning to be respectful of one another, having the capability to appreciate diversity has material effects for all students as they leave the “UD bubble.”
“I know of several companies that don’t [recruit UD students] because we lack racial and ethnic diversity,” Picca said. “If you have companies and corporations, including major Fortune 500 companies, that are not reaching out to UD students because we’re perceived as graduating students that aren’t comfortable in diverse settings, that impacts everybody here.”
Though, Creating Inclusive Communities addresses issues of diversity beyond just race and ethnicity.
“What [resonates] with me is the connection between race and gender and social class and sexual orientation and all those social identities and trying to get folks to see how they work together,” Picca said.
Students in the mini-course also learned about how to discuss matters of privilege among their peers.
“One thing that I learned was not just a better way to understand privilege, but also a better way to talk about privilege with people who are also interested in it and with people who maybe don’t have an interest in it,” Colborn said. “I think the biggest issue of privilege on campus is ignorance to it.”
With so many diverging opinions on matters regarding privilege and oppression, productive conversations may quickly become tangled in emotions due to how strongly individuals feel about these issues.
“Often in conversations like this, people of our demographic are typically afraid to be challenged in a way that they don’t want to be challenged,” Rush said.
However, Rush encouraged all students to speak with people who you know don’t agree with you to find out why someone else would hold that opinion.
“Even if your opinion differs from mine, it’s still a valid opinion,” Rush said.
Morgan said that he and the other faculty members plan to continue this mini-course in future semesters and are currently considering what changes they would like to make to it.
“The group of us that set this up have been talking about what worked, what didn’t work and how can we improve the experience of not only the students but for the faculty and staff who have been working with the students,” Morgan said.
At the time of the interview, Morgan could not list any specific changes he would like to make to the course.
Students must go through an application process to register for the mini-course.
“I’m inspired by the students who participate in these kinds of programs and are passionate,” Anderson said. “It makes me want to do more.”
Graphic by Art Director Kelsey Mills.