Duncan ’15: What makes a ‘Transformative Conversation’?

Guest Columnist
Monday, October 20, 2014

There are many reasons to be skeptical of conversation for conversation’s sake. One conversation does not undo hundreds of years of systematic oppression. One conversation does not eliminate privilege or even make a critical mass of community members aware of its own.

Last Wednesday night’s conversation (“Panelists check ‘white privilege’ in dialogue on race,” Oct. 16), however, allowed us to name our privilege, even as we reproduced it. Recognition is a requisite step for action, and the Transformative Conversations@Brown Project centers this recognition and holds each student, faculty member, administrator and staff member accountable for critically engaging with our collective awareness.

As an event organizer, audience member and student, I have spent the last few days considering the ways in which Wednesday night’s conversation was both a significant starting place,  and nowhere near sufficient.

As the other event coordinators and I began preparations for “Race, Accountability and Allyship at Brown,” we identified and contacted prospective panelists. These initial conversations provided us with the opportunity to create much-needed spaces for recognizing white privilege on Brown’s campus. We met with professors, representative from campus centers, administrators, students and staff members and invited them to challenge racial inequity at Brown.

Two weeks ago, we interviewed Professor James Morone, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. Over the course of our meeting, Morone acknowledged his white privilege and how he imagines Brown can achieve a higher standard of racial justice. Morone explained that he continues to have conversations about race with students in his office hours. Yet he also insisted that the lived experiences of his students were more than just conversations. Morone’s insights foreshadowed many of the responses to last week’s panel.

The panelists at Wednesday’s teach-in all hold positions of power and influence. As administrators, professors, deans and mentors, they shape the policies that make or break this university’s commitment to racial justice. Office hours are critical, especially when the topic of white privilege is rarely discussed in classrooms, in public and at University events. Yet, as Morone emphasized, office hours alone are surely not enough.

Demands for racial equity have fueled discourse and action on Brown’s campus since its founding. In recent years, student activism has been the driving force behind some of the most transformative aspects of campus life, including the Minority Peer Counselor program and the Brown Center for Students of Color. After Wednesday’s conversation, we must foster student leadership and raise our expectations for institutional support of these centers, programs and students.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Dawn King, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology Richard Bungiro PhD’99, Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine, Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Margaret Klawunn, Dean of the College Maud Mandel, Professor of Sociology and International Studies Michael Kennedy and Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02 have demonstrated their willingness to begin bridging the divide between students and the administration. Mandel’s involvement, during the first term of her college leadership, is a signal of the responsiveness we look forward to seeing among others here.

I look forward to seeing other white administrators step forward and talk about how they recognize Brown’s institutional whiteness and what steps they are taking to create a more racially just campus. As we build on the work of previous and current members of Brown’s community, we continue to grapple with ongoing questions of equity, power and privilege.

As a white student who has just begun to enter this conversation, I can only contribute to this movement by first educating myself from the audience members’ reactions. Since Wednesday night, we have begun collecting footage and feedback of our panelists’ remarks and responses from the audience members. As we collect this information, we intend to provide our panelists and the community at large with context for tangible next steps. We need feedback to be as explicit as possible so that we hold ourselves accountable to measurable change.

As Klawunn poignantly noted, this event was held in the same room and at the same time as the Ray Kelly incident last October. By next October, we must be able to reflect on the concrete steps our panelists have taken to build substantial support for undergraduate and graduate students of color at Brown.

I intend to take advantage of Kennedy’s proposal — to interrogate and dismantle institutional whiteness at Brown — and I am looking forward to the next steps we, as a community, can take. It is clear that we need to be talking more about white privilege on all levels: among students, among faculty members and among administrators.

From Barus and Holley to the Bear’s Lair, we must understand the relevance of racial justice and be literate in the vocabulary necessary for productive dialogue. We must create a campus where racial justice is considered as compulsory as the writing requirement — and far more urgent. As an institution, we must demand anti-racist language, interactions and policies every day and from every member of Brown’s community.


Hannah Duncan ’15 can be reached for comment at

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