On Diversity: Lessons from Diversity University

For several years, I have been involved in the Diversity University event at Bryant University. Led by staff members, this challenge invites students to use creative means to tell a story about diversity that means a great deal to them. Because this university has a business focus, few of our students have any formal training in the arts. Courses that offer training in the arts and creative expression are few and far in between although  faculty members like Terri Hasseler, Martha Kuhlman, and others are making some inroads in our curriculum. The article shown below was printed in the online version of the Archway student newspaper at the end of the 2013-2014 academic year. The published article also includes some images from last year’s presentation of the students’  work at REDay (Research and Engagement Day).

Everything I knew about diversity, I re-learned (and more) at Diversity University

by Sandra Enos, PhD. Associate Professor of Sociology

Diversity can be a loaded term; it can be narrowly interpreted to cover those classes of people covered by special protections in civil rights laws—gender, race/ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation. Or it can be so expansive and superficial that it undermines the real difference that our unique humanity permits and reveals. Similarly, the word tolerance is also problematic. It connotes a begrudging acceptance, “Yes, I will tolerate those people but that doesn’t mean I have to like them.” So, how do we talk and think creatively and meaningfully about embracing our differences and encountering each other as full realized human beings?

One challenge of living in a complex world is the disorienting realization that our lives will be characterized by a constant mandate to reconsider what it is we think we know about whole categories of people. There is a greater chance in this day of globalization and mashups that we will encounter others who may seem quite different from ourselves in culture, language, values, and heritage. And these encounters are, of course, a two-way street; while we are wondering what to make of these “strangers,” we can also imagine what it is they are making of us. And given the great shifts in our worlds, how do we know who we are? How do we remain open to seeing the great and grand differences among us, some of which matter deeply and others not at all?

Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock and civil rights activist, writes of the difference between the comforts of home and the challenges of coalition building. What she means by the former is being among “our people,” when we can speak our minds, say what we mean with hardly a concern about starting a fight about contentious issues. Think about how freely you can talk about gun control, income inequality with some of our friends, acquaintances and family and how difficult that would be among others. Think of how hard it is to talk about race, sexual orientation, different abilities and social class in certain groups. The ease of being with like others is being a home, in Johnson Reagon’s terms. But little gets accomplished in these silos; it may be comforting but it is no way to get things done. In coalition building, a political act, we cross over those boundaries because we are trying to do something that is important to “our people” and others. We want to change a policy; we want to build a better community and to do so, requires the help and support of others. Reagon acknowledges the difficulty of this but suggests that communities can’t be built without those who can cross over. Some might call this radical empathy–ability learned through the experience of constructive encounters with difference where one’s emotions are raw and unsettled and where we confront beliefs that we may be uncomfortable acknowledging.

Over the past few years, students have used photography, film, sculpture, script, spoken word, song, music and dance to reveal what couldn’t be expressed otherwise. They have shared their experiences, observations and understandings and have urged us to break out of our bubbles to a deeper appreciation of the diversity around us, which leads me to the importance of enlisting our entire community in diversity. Like the book that inspires the title of this essay, I am going to list just four lessons that I have learned from my involvement in Diversity University over the past several years.

Let’s play: Build opportunities for creativity

I would argue that nothing worth learning can be learned just once. I would also suggest that difficult and challenging concepts like diversity may be best learned through experience and through art and creative expression. That is what I consider the genius of Diversity University, the staff-run event that celebrates diversity by challenging our community to present creative paths to diversity. Create these opportunities and our community, most notably our students, will rise to the occasion and exceed our expectations.

After being involved in this event for many years, I can state without equivocation that our students are hungry for opportunities to showcase their creative abilities and insights. And, as members of the audience, I can also say without fear of contradiction that the lessons that the students impart are powerful and compelling. We have featured these presentations at REDay where we have the opportunity to speak with the students about their work and its evolution. It is clear that students have worked long and hard; that the messages they conveyed were heartfelt and, in some cases, hard and challenging to express.

We are all teachers and learners: Students as teachers and leaders

We are socialized and oriented to do good. We are placed in sensitivity training groups and instructed to be welcoming and open. But, many people hear this as superficial externally imposed “political correctness” when these lessons should be much deeper. These lessons are not academic clinical ones; they are lessons that are about character and disposition. The “faculty members” at Diversity University are students with something to share and the talent and inclination to bring it to the Bryant community. I would suggest here that these lessons may be among the most powerful that our students will hear. Bearing witness to their own struggles or advocating on behalf of others presents our community with an “up close and personal” view of how these students see the world and encounter it. These are not worn out PowerPoints on diversity and why it is good for us; these are powerful expressions of the impact of stereotypes on our self-confidence, of the effect of being judged by others as inferior, and of the feeling of being invisible to others except as a code for “other.” We need to enlist these students and their projects in any of the work we do on diversity; we need to fully enroll them as teachers and leaders.

We are all learning and growing: Fixed and flexible mindedness

Underlying the premise of Diversity University is a belief that we can change and that we are constantly changing. This embraces the idea of a growth mindset and challenges the premise of a fixed mindset. With a growth mindset, we believe that individuals can open their minds, find lessons everywhere, question their deeply held assumptions and learn from failure—all on a path to growth. A fixed mindset suggests that we are stuck with the talent and beliefs that we have, that in-born dispositions prevail, and that one can’t change human nature. The students who present at Diversity University speak eloquently of their own growth, how their ideas have changed and developed, and how their encounters with others have fashioned them into quite different people than they were just a year ago.

We all count: Rendering the invisible visible

It is too easy to see a community like ours as unitary, where the majority rules. Many of the presentations at Diversity University point our attention to the great variety of people in our midst. Images and interviews with individuals who escape the attention of our “official” cameras and press help us to understand that everyone has a story here and that many of those stories challenge the popular premise that Bryant is a business school where students learn to be managers and where few are creative or imaginative. By seeing the creative chops of our students—whether it is Amanda Spaziano’s brilliant spoken word, Kendra Hildebrand ‘s beautiful mannequin sculpture, Rohan Vakij and Benjamin Heineneyer’s compelling Humans of Bryant, Mikayla LaRosa’s provocative documentary or Migena Dulaj’s lovely media assemblage or any of the other presentations we have seen over the years—we affirm a richer, fuller and complicated cultural and social identity for our community.

Diversity University presents us with great opportunities for growth—faculty, staff and students. The call for presentations goes out in the spring semester for an event in late March. It is never too early to imagine what you could do. What does our community need to learn from you? What creative talents are you eager to share? Please join us next year!

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About professorenos

I am a professor of sociology and coordinate service-learning and social entrepreneurship work on my campus at Bryant University. This blog brings together academic and creative work.
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