Diversity Conversations Bring New Perspective

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This fall, the Office of Multicultural Affairs continued its series of conversations on various aspects of diversity: race and ethnicity, religion and spirituality, gender, sexual orientation and identity, and social class. The series, which began last year, provided a “sustained opportunity for small groups of students to come together…to really explore a particular area of interest,” said Darryl Smaw, associate dean for multicultural affairs. The groups, composed of at most ten to twelve participants and two student facilitators, met for two hours a week over the course of four weeks.

“One of our issues, not only here at Swarthmore but also in society as a whole,” said Dean Smaw, is “that we have polite conversation, we have Discourse Light, if you will, around very important and sensitive issues.” This type of conversation, where a small group meets repeatedly over a significant course of time, attempts to avoid that issue: “It’s only when we can really begin to trust one another, and really push one another…that we begin to understand a different perspective.”

Peter Gardner ‘08, who participated in the conversations, agreed. “Because [Swarthmore is] a small campus, because everyone knows everything…that leads to people feeling like they can’t talk about these issues,” he said, “without it immediately being misconstrued…and having people have misconceptions about them.” The conversations, on the other hand, “offer a confidential and closed space, where people who want to talk about these kind of things can really sort of come together” and say what they want to say.

Gardner said that “the only other area where people really feel like they can have this kind of confidential, anonymous discussion the Daily Jolt, which is a big problem, because the Daily Jolt is dumb.” There, the anonymity is perhaps too great, and conversations there “immediately fall to the level of insults.” In the diversity conversations, on the other hand, the small group format and the continuity means that there is a real community, making degrading to insults significantly less likely.

Indeed, “the overall focus…is about creating community,” according to Smaw. “We need a “community that allows us to respect difference — that doesn’t mean that we have to agree with everyone, but that we understand, ‘Here’s a different perspective, and I’ve never had the opportunity to explore with someone why they hold a particular view’; the conversations provide that opportunity.”

Students applied for the conversations in early September; the application was a relatively short process, where students indicated which topics they would prefer to do and at what times they were available to do them. Race and ethnicity, Smaw said, was the most popular choice; last fall, on the other hand, social class was the most popular topic. The applicants were mostly first- and second-year students, although a fair number of juniors and some seniors also participated.

Each group had two student facilitators, but they didn’t serve as facilitators in the traditional sense of the word. Instead of coming in with an agenda of topics to touch on or exercises to do, the facilitators merely tried to make sure that the conversation flowed well. Their role was to “get the conversation started and help clarify points that come up,” said Smaw. This is in sharp contrast to the workshop model, which encompasses many of the College’s other offerings for talking about diversity, these were emphatically conversations.

Although Smaw emphasized that the facilitators were intended to “by and large not be active participant[s] in the conversation,” the role they played varied somewhat from group to group. Alyssa Work ‘08, a participant in the conversation about gender, said that her facilitators “asked [the group] at the first conversation, ‘Would you like us to play more of a role of facilitators or be part of this conversation?’” Her group couldn’t decide, so they “came up with a good blend” of participating and moving the conversation along when necessary.

Bettina Tam ‘10, the facilitator of the religion and spirituality conversation, said that she and her co-facilitator worked out a system wherein if one of them had something they wanted to contribute to the conversation, they would “trade off” their roles, with one participating and the other staying a third-party observer.

Likewise, Gardner said that his facilitators helped direct the flow of the conversation as well as participating, and found no real problems with their playing both roles. Despite the different approaches taken by the facilitators, however, it seemed that each worked out well; everyone seemed to think that the conversations flowed naturally and organically, and if someone had something they wanted to talk about, it was generally discussed eventually.

Overall, all parties involved appeared to be satisfied with their experience.

Said Work, “I keep having these a-ha moments,” the moments in everyday life where that make you realize the effects of gender, “and I don’t really know where to go with them.” Gardner said that participating in the conversations “definitely” affected the way he thinks about race and ethnicity: “I don’t think it’s possible for it not to affect how I think about the school and the student body.” Tam, on the other hand, did not experience such a dramatic shift, but she did say it “widened [her] perspective” and “showed [her] more ways of looking at things, rather than changing any one thing in particular.”

The one complaint any of these participants had was that they wished it had been able to go into even more depth. “At the end,” Gardner said, “we were all were kind of sitting there thinking, ‘Okay, now what about next week?’” He went so far as to suggest that the conversations last all semester, though he admitted that would probably be impractical. Apparently, Dean Smaw agreed with him, as he is “hoping to expand it to a six-week model.”

Otherwise, though, there seemed to be no complaints at all. Each of these participants implored Swatties to take advantage of this “wonderful opportunity,” and each said that they hoped to participate in the similar conversations to be had in the spring. These will follow essentially the same model as the ones this term, and will hopefully include about twice as many newcomers to the conversations as veterans. The main change that might occur, other than the possible switch to occurring over six weeks, is a change in topics: though informal polls will be held to determine topics, Dean Smaw is considering maybe adding a conversation focusing on racism.

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