This was a typical lunch date with a colleague and friend – one that would include our typical life updates and next steps on how we were going to change the world, but after spending the evening before glued to the news and social media about the Ferguson case, we knew this lunch discussion would be different. We were triggered, charged and motivated to act.
Wilmington, North Carolina is roughly six hours from Baltimore, but it felt as though it was next door. We could quickly name students we knew from that area and recall the streets we have walked while visiting. Events similar to those that stirred the response in Baltimore had been happening all around us and as educators we wondered if there were outlets for our campus community to have conversations surrounding the social justice issues that framed the headlines. Like many campuses, there is apprehension to address these issues and we tread lightly and remain cautious of our climate. It was during this particular lunch date that we decided to develop a safe space where structure did not previously exist, for our campus to begin intentional dialogue about current events and injustices impacting our communities.
According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ (AAC&U) Leap Challenge (2015), liberal arts education is called to prepare students to “understand and manage complexity, diversity and change” by providing opportunities to practice communication, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. Research on best practices shows that on many campuses where conversations of diversity and social justice are embedded in our orientation programs, first-year seminar courses, and leadership workshops, we find many moments to introduce students to foundational conversations of inclusion; however, how do institutions without structured dialogue programs launch organic forums for a campus community to engage in rich dialogue about major situations of injustice that occur in our communities and around the nation?
On our campus, we found there to be a void of dialogue when the tragedy of Freddie Gray swept through the news waves. In fact, over the course of an academic year where numerous tragic situations occupied our conscience, the only public discussion happening on our campus seemed to occur when students chose to acknowledge the events through chalking messages of #blacklivesmatter, #justiceforbrown, etc. across campus as a nod towards solidarity for the cause. While discussing the personal thoughts on the current events over lunch, we began to wonder if there was room for us to create a space for dialogue amongst students, faculty, and staff.
Over the summer of 2015, we embarked on a chance to engage our peers in dialogue about their own perspectives around these national tragedies. In a series of three open lunch forums, student affairs professionals and faculty members enlightened one another with many perspectives, but what surfaced during each conversation was the inquiry of how to bring students to the table, how to equip and prepare them to facilitate conversations with an array of campus constituents.
Relying on the work of Adams, Bell and Griffin (2007), “the process for attaining the goal of social justice, we believe, should also be democratic and participatory, inclusive and affirming of human agency and human capacities for working collaboratively to create change.” This framework informed the need to create spaces where all students, faculty, and staff could forge a relationship to the social change we needed on our campus. From here, we tapped into structured models of engagement provided by the Sustained Dialogue and Intergroup Dialogue Institutes.
Our approach to this program’s development is grounded in the Social Change Model of Leadership (1996) that acknowledges that change happens with a consciousness of self, consciousness of others and consciousness of community. After implementing this dialogue series on our campus and presenting at two national conferences on the development of the program, participants have had the opportunity to explore their personal connections and professional capital linked to the topics, discuss the vulnerability of external perceptions, and the value of active involvement to influence social change. We are excited to be partnering with the Sustained Dialogue Institute this April to offer a weekend professional development opportunity for 50 students, faculty, and staff to begin to unpack their own experiences and cultivate ideas of how we as a community can bring voice to the many untold and silenced stories on our campus. Referencing Astin & Astin’s Leadership Reconsidered: Engaging Higher Education in Social Change (2000), Dr. William Richardson, acknowledges that “opportunities to make a difference is within the reach of every one of us engaged in the process of higher education” (p. vi). With this frame of reference, we hope to empower each other to find a way to champion discussions from small groups to campus-wide initiatives.
Jemilia Davis, Academic Advisor for Pre-Professional Programs, University College, University of North Carolina Wilmington
Clifton Williams, Residence Coordinator, Housing and Residence Life, University of North Carolina Wilmington