By Phoebe Carter
A committee of students, staff and faculty met last Thursday to discuss diversity at Kenyon and how to engage the entire student body in conversations towards a more tolerant community. Alex Britt ’15 convened the committee and moderated the meeting. At Kenyon, diversity has only been a topic of conversation, but actual implementation of any lasting program that engages students on a broad scale has yet to be achieved.
This year, Britt hopes to move away from small, contained conversations about issues of race, class and identity, and to implement a program that will make a lasting change on the way Kenyon students understand and relate to one another. “One of the frustrations here is that the conversations, while productive in some regards, are the same ones had by nearly the same people every time,” Britt said. “What we want to do is create a space in which all students can feel comfortable engaging and participating.”
Britt’s goal for the committee’s first meeting was to pin down a specific objective. “If we’re going to talk about these things, it should be precise because we can keep on saying these things until hell freezes over, but this is about actually getting something done,” she said. Precision proved difficult, however, as the committee sought to define their goal and translate it into an effective program.
Andrew Firestone ’14 spoke about an attitude of “casual racism and classism” that he observes students slipping into on campus, calling it an “infection” for which he hopes the committee’s initiative can be an antidote. His suggestion was “an experiential program that would allow students to expand their thinking about what the next four years are gonna be,” which would take the form of discussions and community service during Orientation for first-years.
The option to add a program to the already overwhelming week of Orientation was met with some opposition. Director of Equal Opportunity Mariam El-Shamaa voiced her hesitation of “putting all our eggs in the Orientation basket,” saying that during Orientation, students are concerned only with what is crucial. She did acknowledge, however, that by opening discussions of identity at the beginning of the first year would help to set a framework for the next three years.
“Orientation is also when students are most eager to jump in,” she said. “I think that if we can craft something for Orientation that puts people in the right frame of mind to start exploring their own identity … I think that that would be a good place to start.”
To create a more lasting change in how students understand identity and diversity, some members of the committee were in favor of a mandatory first-year seminar that would take a more academic format and feature lectures from various professors.
This idea, too, faced some opposition, particularly due to concerns over faculty resistance to curriculum changes. “If getting changes to the curriculum is too big of an obstacle, maybe adding a requirement” that students attend a certain number of common hour or other discussions in order to graduate would be feasible, said Britt, voicing yet another option for the committee’s model.
Britt also referenced a suggestion made by President Sean Decatur in a Discrimination Advisor meeting last fall, which would provide a middle ground between an orientation week program and a semester-long seminar. His vision was to utilize the six-week period between orientation and matriculation for a series of lectures and discussions that students would be expected to attend.
Lisa Swaim, director of off-campus study, voiced her concern surrounding a mandatory first-year program as “students are all at different developmental stages, and if you engage them when they’re not ready it will backfire.”
Tacci Smith, associate dean of students and director of new student orientation and community service, said that “what seems to work best in a lot of ways is a top down structure. … Younger students following the lead of upperclass students.” She suggested the committee focus on upperclassman in their considerations as much as first-year students, because trying to change things from the first years up would be “an uphill battle.”
What the whole committee agreed on was that, whatever form their initiative takes, they have to find a way to engage students. “The ones who are willing to become involved in [these discussions] are often not necessarily the ones who need it,” Morgan McClure ’14 said. “How do you get people who are not interested in learning about race theory and gender theory to care?”
Getting students to care is what Britt sees as the committee’s primary objective. “Maybe [our] big overarching goal is to find that thing that each individual is passionate about because everyone is crazy about something,” she said.
El-Shamaa thought discussions of identity would succeed in engaging students. “It’s something that everyone has to deal with even if you think they’re your average american,” she said. “There are so many aspects to people’s identity that everyone has something they can relate to. If they can open their minds to exploring that [which they are familiar with] … they’ll be more open to exploring other things.”
Some members of the committee were for an academic approach, while others focused more on open discussion or community service. A general consensus was reached that an interdisciplinary approach that included all these aspects would be most effective.
Jinexa Nuñoz ’16 articulated the importance of creating a program that will offer more to the community than just a passing semester experience. “We need something that becomes the norm,” she said. “I don’t want this to be a special snippet of your college experience. I need this to be lasting.”
By the end of the meeting, how to create that lasting change remained elusive. Since Thursday’s meeting, Britt said the committee is working to gather information to gauge the community’s interest in a program of the nature they have been discussing, as well as examining currently existing microaggressions at Kenyon to better understand the issues their initiative is hoping to remedy. “We want to be thorough in all aspects of this initiative so that we can get one step closer to actually changing things,” Britt said.