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Admins urge ‘transformative conversations’ across campus

Hoping to open lines of discourse throughout Brown, project includes online platform

As the semester kicks off, the University is promoting “Transformative Conversations@Brown,” a project launched by administrators in February and sponsored by the Office of Institutional Diversity.

The project “strives to provide opportunities and spaces to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with each other across our differences,” according to a Sept. 2 email sent to all students, staff members and faculty members.

“Transformative Conversations” currently comprises a website that will serve as a platform to list any course, performance, conversation or event that the organizer considers a transformative conversation.

The website currently features several listings of courses and events happening on campus, including the Gaza teach-in that occurred last week, two courses — AFRI 0090: “Introduction to Africana Studies” and MES 0155: “Cultures of the Contemporary Middle East” — and a Theater Arts and Performance Studies series titled “Shape-shifting: Conflicts and Conversations in Play.”

“Through the umbrella of ‘Transformative Conversations,’ we hope to be able to get the word out in a broader way about these opportunities for engagement,” said Liza Cariaga-Lo, associate provost for academic development and diversity and head of the Office of Institutional Diversity. She added that in the future, the Office of Institutional Diversity is looking into possibly sponsoring or co-sponsoring events.

“Transformative Conversations” first took place as a series of workshops geared toward staff and faculty members at the start of the spring semester, said Margaret Klawunn, vice president of campus life and student services, who also played a major role in the project’s development.

It was originally launched “as an opportunity to build capacity for our communities to have difficult conversations across our many differences,” Cariaga-Lo said. “The idea of having a transformative conversation is not simply to hear somebody out but also to be able to listen and truly understand another’s perspective and learn from that perspective.”

“We wanted to have opportunities for a range of different conversations and spaces and opportunities for dialogue,” Klawunn said.

“There’s no question that everybody will say (the project was inspired by) the Ray Kelly event,” said Dean of the College Maud Mandel, referring to the controversial Ray Kelly lecture that was canceled last fall due to protests. “But we were talking about it before that.”

“The Ray Kelly incident particularly made us recognize certain kinds of conversations were harder than others,” said Janet Cooper Nelson, University chaplain, adding that this doesn’t mean certain ideas and conversations are right or wrong. “Many of us didn’t want to put a value judgment on it.”

“We saw a lot of hurt, and we saw a lot of misunderstanding last year,” Cooper Nelson said. “Transformative Conversations could do something to help us give each other the benefit of the doubt and truly try to weigh into things that are hard.”

“The idea behind Transformative Conversations is the notion that on a college campus … people come from all kinds of backgrounds,” Mandel said. “These groups of people learn best by engaging in conversation with each other about (their differences).”

There are no explicit requirements for a “transformative conversation,” Mandel said. “We are in no way trying to control campus conversations,” she added. “We are serving as a platform.”

Cooper Nelson compared the project to “a big wooden spoon in the pot of Brown’s student life.”

“We’re trying to stir a little bit,” she added. “Instead of waiting for people to be upset at each other, (we want to) get some of these ideas in our circulation, as things we can take on proactively.”

The project neither has a particular end goal or end date, nor a specific timeline. Cariaga-Lo said administrators are in the process of meeting with student leaders, student organizations, faculty groups and administrative groups regarding the project.

“The website is a work in progress. … We’re working on making it more robust and figuring out ways different constituencies can get information about other activities going on on campus,” she said. “It’s been great to hear some of the work that other people are doing in spaces that we don’t normally think about,” she added.

“There are lots of difficult conversations that happen every day,” Mandel said. “A university is the best place for those to take place because we are dedicated to the idea of unpacking simplicities, understanding complexities behind problems and challenging assumptions we all have that we’ve never thought about.”

“It’s only going to work if people in the community are interested in it,” Klawunn said. “We want to demonstrate that we’re interested in this, and we want to demonstrate that we know we can do a better job than we did as a campus last year.”

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