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Establishing A Culture Built on Storytelling

December 14, 2016 Katy Kaesebier University of Houston

 “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Every community, no matter how small or large, has a story. The one-sentence story that guides much of our work around civic learning and democratic engagement at the University of Houston is this: The University of Houston (UH) is the second most ethnically diverse major research institution in the United States.

On any given day, one could walk through the Student Center and get unique stories from our 43,000+ students that showcase a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs. As Student Affairs Professionals, part of our job on each of our campuses is to figure out how to capture and share the stories of our students in a way that does not turn the individual stories into a single story. One major approach we are taking to support this effort at UH is through utilizing dialogue and deliberation.

Like many institutions across the country, multiple departments on campus have hosted an open dialogue in response to events impacting both our campus and our country in recent months. The challenge with hosting dialogues is ensuring that multiple perspectives and voices are present, and that we avoid reinforcing the single story of an issue or topic. UH is taking a multifaceted approach to engaging folks in our community and providing a space for everyone’s voice to be heard.

First and foremost, we are extremely fortunate to have a deep level of institutional support for dialogue and deliberation as a method that supports positive social change. This is highlighted in the university-wide Diversity and Inclusion statement that was created through a task force comprised of Faculty, staff, and students, and instituted in Fall 2016. “…We commit to engaging in an ongoing dialogue to thoughtfully respond to the changing realities of our increasingly interconnected world. We will continually strive to work together to address the challenges of the future in a way that removes barriers to success and promotes a culture of inclusivity, compassion and mutual respect...” The Diversity and Inclusion statement bears a powerful message that has a campus-wide impact. But, if all members of our community are not included and represented as we continually work to improve our community, we run the risk of operating through the lens of a single story.

Through the #IAMUH campaign hosted by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion we strive to educate and celebrate the diversity that is represented at the University of Houston. This campaign provides a unique opportunity to highlight individual stories and voices. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, she states that, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” As seen in this video, #IAMUH empowers members of our community to share their story with a broader audience that digs deep into a person’s identity and experience.

Students have a desire and need to have their voices heard in a way that is meaningful to them. One way UH is working toward this goal is by providing our Democracy Wall at a wide range of events. By creating a space for students to engage in a semi-anonymous way, the Democracy Wall allows for individuals to share their thoughts and opinions on a topic. Through interactions of reading and responding to posts, students can engage in conversations around hot issues with their peers and other members of the community.

To capture the depth of our stories, we must not do it alone.  We need to collaborate across departments, units, and with our academic colleagues.  The Center for Student Involvement, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, and a Diversity Education Consortium composed of nearly 20 departments in both academic affairs and student affairs are partnering on a new dialogue series beginning this spring. The dialogue series is designed to address the question of, “What does it mean to be one of the most diverse institutions in the country?” UH is one of the most diverse institutions in the country, but diversity is not something to be checked off of a list through our enrollment numbers and demographics. Through the use of dialogue and deliberation, we aim to deepen the conversation around inclusion, what that means for our campus, and how to support efforts to create a more inclusive community. We have so much to gain from each of our students having a voice, and so much to lose if we get lost in a single story.