In recent weeks, we’ve watched a debate emerge over teaching about race in schools from grade school to college. Fueled by misunderstanding and emotion, there is evidence this debate was contrived to sow division and confusion. Rather than add to that, we’d like to offer a firsthand account of what addressing issues of race and other discrimination on a college campus can look like.
We start from the belief that an honest accounting of our history, warts and all, and history’s continued impact on our daily lives is integral to both understanding and working through our present predicaments. How do we make progress? It may sound simple, but by talking it out.
It is prudent for us to consider our own history. Trinity College (Hartford) was founded as Washington College in 1823, ten years before England’s Slave Abolition Act, 40 years before the emancipation proclamation, nearly 100 years before white women gained suffrage in America and over 100 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Founded as an all-male, all-white institution, Trinity reflected the society of its time.
Over the decades, the college has evolved. In the late 1960’s, Trinity began enrolling a more diverse student body, including the admission of women in 1969. To stay relevant we must always work toward better reflecting our society -– learning and adjusting with bumps along the way.
Fall of 2020, in the throes of the global pandemic, we launched an Intergroup Dialogue training program with help from our friends at Connecticut College. Nearly 50 faculty and staff from across campus and from myriad backgrounds participated in two trainings, which focused on how to have difficult conversations around topics of discrimination and inequality. In each session, we did an activity adapted for pandemic Zooming called “cameras on, cameras off.” The activity, designed to help participants become vulnerable with one another, was powerful.
It went like this: with cameras starting in the off position, turn your cameras on if you… “Have witnessed or experienced racism at work.” Some cameras switched back on, some remained off. “Have witnessed or experienced sexism at work.” Cameras on, cameras off. “Have witnessed or experienced micro-aggression that made you feel unwelcome at work.” It was impossible to miss the patterns. But the richness came in the discussion where people shared their experiences openly. People shared, listened, and were heard.
In some ways, that is what it all comes down to. Can we hear each other? Though easier said than done in a polarized and anxious climate, we all possess the ability to become better listeners. By respecting everyone’s personhood and truly listening, we can make the ground fertile for constructive dialogue. We can learn from the experiences of our friends, colleagues and acquaintances. We, as individuals and institutions, can apply what we learn to foster a stronger community.
This is not easy. Discomfort is part of the experience. Inviting everyone means inviting everyone. Daryl Davis, famed for convincing KKK members to give up their racism, puts it like this: “We spend too much time talking about each other, at each other, past each other, and not enough time talking with each other.” Not everyone will come to terms with harm, passive or intentional, they may have caused others. It takes introspection and emotional maturity. Building a community of listeners ready to talk through these issues, however, means giving people the tools and agency to transcend bigoted ideas and behaviors.
Hearing enables action; action enables change. We can be the change we wish to see. Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are not merely an intellectual exercise for so many, but a daily lived experience that needs to be heard.
What could happen if we abandoned our defensiveness and accepted those experiences as truth? What might we change armed with this new understanding?
Diversity means reflecting the world; equity means everyone has a meaningful say; inclusion means we have something to learn from each other. Taken together Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) means you’re here, you matter, and we see the humanity in you. We are not all the same, but we are all equally human.
This debate is not about who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s about honoring the human dignity we intrinsically share. We do that by hearing each other and taking action to better our community. If you’re having a hard time with that, let’s talk – we’re all ears.
Matt Southworth is Associate Director for Leadership Giving and an Intergroup Dialogue Taskforce member at Trinity College. John Michael Mason is Head Track & Field Coach, Chair of the Cinestudio Board of Directors and member of the Trinity Athletics DEI Committee.