The turbulence, often in the form of conflict, that schools from K-12 and higher education institutions have been experiencing over the past several months is well-documented. Anxiety over a variety of issues is high, and the need to encourage and support safe, respectful dialogue about these concerns, and the various viewpoints that are behind concerns, is urgent.
At Keene State College (KSC), as well around the country, there was a sense that people on all sides of the political spectrum felt concerns that needed to be expressed. A greater sense of safety and support is critical during these times. Rather than ignoring the thoughts and feelings that a campus community has, it is more important than ever to create platforms for communication. We posed the question: “How can we transform theory, values, and beliefs into actions in an effort to create a campus environment rooted in civility and mutual respect that honors the significance of difference?”
The Keene State community pulled together to answer this question. One of the popular suggestions was to have an “old school” teach-in.
The teach-in was held February 1. There were 38 sessions held that day, involving more than 60 faculty, staff and students. Panels, discussions and workshops included topics such as immigration, civics, self-care, bystander intervention, the political environment, social justice/social action, and two student panels representing the Holocaust and Genocide Studies club and the KSC Republicans discussed campus culture.
Lessons we learned:
- Do not be afraid to move toward and through the discomfort or conflict. It is better to provide opportunities for the concerns to be directly expressed rather than indirectly via distractive behaviors.
- When there is a “minority” (actual or perceived) viewpoint, those who are at risk of not feeling heard or feeling misunderstood must be deliberately and actively urged to be a part of the conversation. This is key to having a process with diversity of perspectives represented at the core.
- We must practice what we teach about diversity, especially when we disagree with the point of view of another person. We cannot live by “if people agree with me then they are open minded and if they disagree with me then they are closed minded.”
- Establishing guidelines for engagement supports an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. These guidelines need to be clearly articulated at the beginning of the day and during each teach-in session.
- Having dedicated time to talk about how national events and campus incidents have affected our community was energizing and left people hopeful. The feedback was positive and there is a call to do this type of event again. We are in the process of preparing for the next teach-in.
- This effort cannot be a “one and done.” There have been presentations, workshops and discussions that stemmed from the teach-in throughout the spring 2017 semester.
- Practicing what we teach can be challenging and rewarding.
Dr. Dottie Morris is associate vice president for institutional diversity and equity at Keene State College and Dr. Celia Rabinowitz is the college’s dean of Mason Library.