Students, alumni seek to bridge racial divide on campus

Courtesy of Vassar Media Relations
Courtesy of Vassar Media Relations
Courtesy of Vassar Media Relations

On Sept. 13, the College will host a panel entitled “Bridging the Racial Divide in the College Classroom and Beyond: a Conversation” from 3:00 to 5:30 pm in UpC. The event was designed to facilitate a conversation between members of the Vassar community about issues of racial division in a college setting.

The panelists, chosen for their experience with issues of diversity in policy-making and education, will include Deputy Director for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Howard University Professor and former Senior Research Analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Ivory Toldson, as well as Assistant Professor of African-American History at Georgetown University and Ford Foundation Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow Marcia Chatelain, who initiated the #FergusonSyllabus Twitter movement in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death to help teachers discuss issues of race in the classroom.

Also featured in the panel will be Vassar alumni Shaka King ’01 and Indiana Garcia ’11. King is an award-winning Sundance filmmaker and the recipient of the 2015 W. K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts, given annually to a Vassar alum working in the arts. King will be arriving at Vassar the day before the panel, and will screen two of his films to prompt thinking about the following day’s discussion. Garcia was a member of Poder Latin@ and the Council of Black Seniors while at Vassar, and helped Director of Africana Studies and head of the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence Zachariah Mampilly, who will also speak on the panel, develop the Transitions program to help low-income and first-generation students adjust to life at Vassar. She now works for the Posse Foundation’s Los Angeles office.

The event, which will be moderated by Professor of Film Mia Mask, was organized by Associate Professor of Latin American History Leslie Offutt and Professor of Dance Miriam Mahdaviani. The professors developed the idea for the “Bridging the Racial Divide” after working together in February in collaboration with the Bardavon Theater, a downtown Poughkeepsie opera house. Mahdaviani and Offutt joined the Board of Directors at the Bardavon to present two plays, “Rhapsody in Black” and “Through a Lens Darkly,” in honor of Black History Month.

This panel will serve as a follow-up to the earlier collaboration. Offutt explains, “The goal [was] to bring the Vassar community into a conversation with the larger Poughkeepsie community about issues of shared concern,” Offutt explains of the February event, while this month’s will be aimed at addressing what can be done here at Vassar.

The Vassar-Bardavon collaboration was funded through the Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences Initiative (DEAD), a grant program distributed through the President’s office. The DEAD Initiative is also making the upcoming panel possible. According to Mahdaviani, President Catharine Bond Hill reminded faculty in a recent meeting that the fund is available for use by anyone who applies for a grant. Vassar Student Association President Ramy Abbady ’16 anticipates the conversation being a beneficial use of the DEAD funds. He says, “The programming I’ve seen hasn’t targeted racial issues in particular.” Offutt and Mahdaviani encourage students who have a vision to take advantage of the opportunity. They assert, “Their voices need to be heard… [although] sometimes they don’t think they have a voice.”

The event is designed to be a conversation between the professionals and Vassar participants. Offutt asserts that there is not a planned set of topics to be discussed. She remarks, “It’s not [the organizers’] role to be prescriptive. It’s our role to invite the concerns to come forward, and then figure out what we can do with them, in the company of people…who have real-world experience.” The panelists will be able to make suggestions for advancing the mission to create a more inclusive campus. Students and staff are equally invited to attend. Abbady hopes that the conversation might prompt faculty to consider diversity training, which is something students organizations have asked for in the past. The event will ideally open continuous conversation among student groups as well as between students and staff.

The aim of the panel is to prompt further conversation about inclusivity and division, not to reach any tangible goals. When asked for a specific example of an issue they hope to see addressed, both cited the concept of students of color feeling unwelcome in what they perceive as “white spaces.” They hope to work towards ridding the campus of those barriers. Mahdaviani says, “We thought it was especially important to at least begin to come to an understanding and be more sensitive and aware that these racial divisions do impact us.”

The organizers realize conversations about issues of race and division are already happening around campus, but they hope to bring these conversations to a wider audience. As Mahdaviani notes, “You’re not going to change things overnight…but I would like people to have a more open way of thinking about things.” Offutt agrees, “We couldn’t presume to solve the problems; what we can hope that this brings forward is a greater ability and willingness to come together…to respect and learn from each other.” Both organizers hope that conversation will help unite the smaller communities at Vassar into a wide, welcoming one.

Any and all members of the Vassar community are urged to attend and participate. “These are issues that are meant to be addressed by all of us, engaged by all of us … There are voices that, to the extent that we are segmented into our identities (faculty, administrators, staff, students), we don’t have the opportunity to hear,” acknowledges Offutt. The idea is for all to feel welcome, both at this event and at Vassar, and to work through issues while appreciating differences. She maintains, “Diversity and inclusion are not antithetical.”

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