February 1, 2012

ABLE talk addresses diversity issues

Approximately 40 students, faculty and staff crowded into the Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality (ABLE) House on Wednesday night to share views on what diversity meant to them, their own experiences with diversity at Knox and what could be done to address gaps in diversity education.

The discussion was sparked by a petition circulated to club presidents by junior Rana Tahir. In the petition, Tahir expressed concern about the removal of the Freshman Preceptorial (FP) diversity requirement and asked students to “demand” that it be reinstated.

“We have a right to demand things of our education,” she said. “I hope we can talk honestly, openly, and see where we can move forward with this.”

Dean of the College Lawrence Breitborde explained the process through which the decision to remove the diversity component from FP was reached. With the introduction of the new FP format in the fall, Breitborde did not want any limitations on the topics faculty could propose.

“We’d never really defined what was meant by diversity in FP,” he said. “It seemed like it might’ve constrained the response.”

In addition to the diversity component of FP, all Knox students have long been required to take an additional course designated “DV” for diversity. According to data from the Office of the Registrar, 75 percent of the class of 2010 had taken more than the minimum number of DV courses.

“What bothers me is, what about that other 25 percent?” junior Lilly Saenz said. “I think people are always like, ‘Oh, it’s a requirement,’ but it’s just like … realizing that something you say and the way you say it can really offend someone.”

The discussion quickly expanded beyond FP to address the broader issue of attitudes towards diversity at Knox. One thing most participants agreed on was the need for more emphasis on diversity, not just for students, but for faculty as well, as they may want to discuss issues of diversity but may not have the language or confidence to do so.

“I think of diversity as a skill set,” senior Angie Ostaszewski said. “Focusing on something like diversity training that focuses on how you think and not just the material you use is a really great idea.”

Sophomore Melvin Taylor, who is African American, talked about being asked by other students if they could touch his hair. Saenz, who is Latina, mentioned that she had once been asked if she could swim because of the Mexican racial slur “wetback.” Freshman Gayoung Moon, who is Korean but grew up in the Dominican Republic, broke into tears when recounting derogatory nicknames she had been called because of her ethnicity.

“All experiences are going to be different … but what I have found is that having that feeling at all on our campus is troublesome and fundamentally wrong,” Tahir said.

Sophomore Heidi Reidel brought up the need for more concern about diversity, not only in the classroom, but also in day-to-day life as well, citing her own experience living with Tahir as an example of the potential for students to learn from honest, open conversations with each other.

“I learned more from being in Rana’s life about [her] culture … than from ever being in the classroom,” she said.

Although Tahir and others called on faculty members to take a more active role in educating themselves about diversity, Associate Professor of History Konrad Hamilton emphasized that in the past, it has always been students who have effected change in regards to diversity at Knox. Both the creation of the Black Studies department and the original diversity requirement in FP were the results of student initiatives.

“I feel like I’ve gotta be my own advocate,” sophomore Sean Hopkins said. “You have to be bold and courageous with this.”

For those interested in learning more about the petition, it is printed as an open letter in this week’s Discourse section. Tahir will be tabling next week to gather signatures. Students with further concerns are also encouraged to speak with the Campus Diversity Committee, which meets at noon on Mondays in the McClelland Room of Seymour Union.

“This is only the beginning,” Taylor said. “A lot of good can come from this.”

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