University News

Brown hosts diversity, inclusion workshops

As part of DIAP, faculty, staff workshops focus on racism, ablesim, LGBTQ, Islamophobia, classism

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Faculty and staff members participate in a diversity and inclusion workshop. Despite being optional, the training program received a large turnout, with some audience members sitting on the floor.

Following the release of the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, the University hosted its first series of diversity training workshops Tuesday titled “Unpacking Diversity and Inclusion in the Academy.”

The event was aimed at individuals responsible for undergraduate instruction and co-curricular support. It featured workshops led by faculty members and graduate students that focused on racism, ableism, LGBTQ support, Islamophobia, classism and historically underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

The series kicked off with a plenary panel discussion on the DIAP where President Christina Paxson P’19 recounted her own experiences as both a victim and a perpetrator of discrimination. She described encountering daily prejudice as a female college student studying economics. She also described having nearly mistaken an African-American colleague for a caterer during a Faculty Club mixer at Princeton University.

“Implicit biases are alive and well in the academy,” she said, explaining why she saw the DIAP as critical to the progress of the University. She said she saw the plan as the culmination of a two-year effort to increase diversity on campus, which originated with her “Building on Distinction” initiative.

The DIAP allowed the administration to flesh out actionable goals in greater detail than ever before, Paxson said.

“We would not be where we are without the activism of our students,” said Provost Richard Locke P’17.

Locke also clarified that the diversity training was not mandatory as such tactics tended to “backfire.”

Diversity training programs do not often work without willing participants,  Vice President for Academic Development, Diversity and Inclusion Liza Cariaga-Lo told The Herald, citing research published in the Harvard Business Review. Making the training mandatory goes against the culture created by Brown’s open curriculum, she added.

Despite the event being optional, it still received a large turnout. Within 90 minutes of when the invitation was sent out to administrators, faculty members and staff members, the event was full, Cariaga-Lo said. Many people who were waitlisted came to the presentations anyway and sat on the floor when there was no seating available, she added. “It just shows how eager people are to have these conversations.”

To accommodate the high demand for the event, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion offered each workshop twice over the course of the afternoon,  she added.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the initial panel, an attendee raised the question of whether the administration would consider different, non-data-driven metrics for measuring intangible goals like inclusion.  In response, Locke stressed the importance of listening and bearing witness to the many experiences Brown students, faculty members and staff members had to share.

“Unpacking Diversity and Inclusion in the Academy” is the first step in making an active effort to listen to historically underrepresented groups. Speakers for these workshops were chosen from the pool of individuals who offered feedback during the drafting of the DIAP in the fall. Speakers were given a lot of autonomy in how to structure their workshops, Cariaga-Lo told The Herald.

‘African American Collective Identity and Activism’

Karida Johnson GS and Shamara Wyllie Alhassan GS opened their workshop with a clarification of its title. “We’ve railed against the term ‘collective identity’ because it is too essentializing,” Johnson said, explaining that she preferred their workshop be retitled “African American Experiences and Activism.”

Johnson and Alhassan chose to use the workshop as an opportunity to provide their audience with historical context about black activism. They also used the platform to direct faculty attention toward curricular resources on campus concerning race relations, such as the Slavery and Justice Report or the slave shackle exhibit at the John Hay Library.

Alhassan said that the main objective of their workshop was to unpack the terms surrounding race discourse in the United States so that all attendees felt equipped to participate in the conversation. Alhassan quoted Audre Lorde, an African-American writer and civil rights activist, saying “I am not free as long as one person of color remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”

Johnson emphasized that the African-American struggle was, at heart, an American struggle and that passivity was not an acceptable response to racial hatred. Referring to a video by the Guardian titled “Are you racist? ‘No.’ isn’t a good enough answer,” Johnson and Alhassan drew a distinction between being non-racist and anti-racist. “It’s not enough to be non-racist,” Alhassan said, explaining that people who do not see themselves as racist can still be complicit in racism by virtue of their inaction.

When Alhassan was invited to lead the workshop on the African-American experience, she was excited but reserved, she told The Herald. While she saw the DIAP as a big step in the right direction, she emphasized that the success of the plan depends on everyone embracing this call for change. “Everyone says that we’re a community, but we are not — not yet,” Alhassan said.

‘Islam, Race and American Political Discourse’

Nancy Khalek, associate professor of religious studies, opened her workshop with an anecdote about how she once confessed to a student that she did not know what the term “cis,” short for “cisgender,” meant. “But it’s okay to err; it’s okay to not know when there’s trust,” she said, emphasizing that Brown as a campus needs to cultivate the same trust in discussions around diversity.

Khalek chose to focus on personal narratives within her workshop. She described being congratulated on her lack of an accent and always qualifying her Islamic heritage with, “I’m Muslim, but …” She said a “discerning colleague” made her realize that she was attempting to distance herself from the dominant perception of Muslims in the United States as ISIS supporters.

She also described walking into class after the Paris attacks and using class time to offer her students the opportunity to ask her anonymous questions. While members of the audience appreciated her willingness to engage with her students during class time, faculty from STEM fields pointed out that their disciplines did not offer the opportunity to incorporate discourses on race during class as easily.

In response to an attendee’s comment that some people are attracted to STEM fields because they do not have to deal with issues relating to race, religion and politics, Khalek said, “We are dealing with this whether we want to or not.”

Muslim students are not the only ones who feel marginalized because of their faith, Khalek said. She described the experiences of a white female student who felt alienated on campus because of her strict observance of Catholicism. Students can feel marginalized in ways that are not always obvious, she added.

Takeaways from the series

“The main lesson here is not to make assumptions,” Cariaga-Lo told The Herald. “Everyone here brings valuable experiences, and everyone has something to learn.”

Susan Vieira, program coordinator of international and transfer support, said that she chose to attend the “Islam, Race and American Political Discourse” workshop in an effort to understand the perspectives of the students she meets every day as a part of her job. “I couldn’t imagine having the everyday pressures that these students do,” she said. The talk had given her a better idea of how to start discussions on Islamophobia with her students, Vieira added.

Materials from these workshops will be made available online, Cariaga-Lo told The Herald. The OIDI will also compile data regarding the makeup of the audience in terms of department affiliation.

Though many of the participants found the workshops useful, one suggestion was to integrate more undergraduate student voices.

“I wish there were more opportunities to listen to students themselves,” Vieira said.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that President Christina Paxson P’19 encountered daily prejudice as a female president of a University. In fact, she encountered daily prejudice when she was a female college student studying economics. The Herald regrets the error.