Engaged Pluralism World Café addresses VC community climate

On May 10, a semester’s worth of work by Vassar community members culminated in the Engaged Pluralism Initiative World Café, which showcased a range of ideas geared toward strengthening the inclusivity of the College. / Courtesy of Vassar College/Karl Rabe

[June 12, 2018, Clarification: While the idea for the EPI World Cafe is described below as conceived by Candace Lowe Swift, Swift was actually inspired by an event previously designed and facilitated by Lisa Brawley.]

Vassar’s Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI) is incorporating as many voices as possible in the ongoing journey toward a stronger and more inclusive community. Creating substantive, enduring change in campus culture is undeniably a lofty goal, and one multifaceted enough to preclude viewing it from any singular angle or through any one lens, as was clear at a recent EPI World Café event. EPI, first announced in March 2017, is a $1.6 million, four-year initiative, supported in part by an $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (Vassar Info, “Vassar announces $1.6 million initiative to advance the college’s mission as an inclusive and affirming learning community,” 03.27.2017).

Summing up the mission of the project, the EPI website states, “By ‘engaged pluralism,’ we mean viewing all manner of social differences as essential components of a strong community, rather than as challenges to be overcome. This means reconsidering how we listen, learn, and provide proactive support for our community—especially for those members who are most vulnerable or who come from historically underserved groups.” One concrete manifestation of these intentions could be seen in the form of the EPI World Café on Thursday, May 10, in the Villard Room, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

The World Café consisted of presentations from students and employees alike, each speaking to improvements and enrichments to be made on Vassar’s campus. Considering the broader goals of EPI and the World Café, President Elizabeth Bradley explained, “The larger mission of EPI is really to bring about culture change in which people at Vassar feel like they belong no matter what their views are, no matter what identity they have, no matter what their course of study is, that they feel as if this is a place for them.”

The event was carefully tailored to encourage engagement across all facets of the community. As Bradley remarked, “The rooms, all three times, have been set up in a purposeful way…round tables that really are meant to be faculty, staff, administrators, students, together at a table, meeting new people, pitching a new idea, thinking about a topic and learning each other’s perspectives, so it’s almost like those cafes allow engaged plural- ism to grow just by that event.”

Speaking to the place of the recent World Café in the context of EPI as a whole, Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette noted, “There was a sense that at the end of the year we really needed to show what the working groups have been working on to the campus, but perhaps more important, set the stage for the next phase of the En- gaged Pluralism Initiative, inviting in new people, but also moving from working groups to projects generated by the working groups[.]”

The World Café—the third of its kind—was conceived by Engaged Pluralism Initiative Co-Chair and Associate Professor of Anthropology Candice Lowe Swift. Fellow Co-Chair and Director of the ALANA Center Wendy Maragh Taylor explained via email, “We had both decided that it was important to have ‘community shares,’ whereby other members of the Vassar community would get information at key points in the semester about what was happening in the seven EPI working groups and also have a chance to give input. This was based on our mutual agreement that the work of engaged pluralism – the concept and the initiative – must be an inclusive process with as many Vassar community members as possible contributing to it.” Maragh Taylor added that she and Lowe Swift worked with Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies and American Studies Lisa Brawley prior to the first Café in order to refine the idea and best include students, staff, administrators and faculty across the college.

Speaking to the diversity that the World Cafés work to represent, Lowe Swift noted via email, “The vision for Engaged Pluralism was grassroots, in the sense that it was developed from many conversations with students, faculty, and administrators, but especially grounded in the perspectives of, and needs articulated by, students. We never want to lose that spirit. At the same time, after the initiative launched, we, as participants and leadership, realized that one of the best parts of EPI is its inclusiveness not solely of students, but also of administrators, faculty, and staff.”

During the spring 2018 semester, Lowe Swift and Maragh Taylor team-taught Anthropology 260: Community Engaged Research, which culminated in students presenting at the World Café. Maragh Taylor enthused, “Those students did a lot of work researching, interviewing and coming up with recommendations in four areas, as devised by them in teams: Play, Leisure & Spaces of Release: Night Life; Campus Life & Diversity; Sexual Violence Resources; Ceremonies & Rituals in the President’s House. I thought those presentations were phenomenal.”

One such project to emerge from the class, created by Darci Siegel ’20, Misha Awad ’18 and Noah Pliss ’20, focused on Campus Life and Diversity at Vassar. Siegel, who works with Campus Life and Diversity as a Women’s Center Intern, explained that she and her fellow group members combed through annual reports by Associate Dean of the College Ed Pittman and observed developments and changes in Campus Life and Diversity over the years, focusing on which methods have produced the most successful programming in the past. One aspect that the group considered was the spaces in which offices have existed and where they might be best located in future. Siegel reflected, “I’m a woman, but I’m also a person of color, so do I hang out in the ALANA Center, or in the Women’s Center, which are two different places on campus … So really thinking about locations, and creating spaces where people feel most included, supported and most comfortable.” The project included three proposals, the first being a Campus Life and Diversity intern consortium, which would meet monthly and discuss program- ming and relevant topics. Siegel elaborated, “Ideally, every month, a different office would orchestrate the meeting and bring forward a topic that was important to their community. Then, over the span of a month, all the interns would work together to create a conversation dinner. At the end of the semester, the conversation dinners that were most successful would carry forward into the spring in other types of programming.”

The group also proposed the creation of two new centers that would fall under the Campus Life and Diversity umbrella. First, Ability Resources and Cultures (ARC) would serve as a center for students with disabilities or non-neurotypical students. Pliss noted, “We are hoping that, if it gets passed, it will help destigmatize ideas around disability, because it is not framing disability as something that needs resources, but something that has its own cultures and needs to be heard.” On the topic of the second center, the Community of Regionalized Margins (CRM), Pliss explained: “[I]t would be a center for students who aren’t from coastal areas or big urban places, to come together and share space, and do their own type of programming that is accessible to them.”

In addition to their proposals, the group administered a survey to the campus community, in- tending both to gather data on how students who identify with different groups interact with Cam- pus Life and Diversity and to inform participants about the project. Siegel commented, “We were pleasantly surprised by the mix of people that took the time to respond. We recognize that we need community collaboration to make CLD the best it can be, so seeing various campus members take the time to complete the survey and give us their point of view was a great feeling.”

Tackling an issue relevant to colleges and universities nationwide, Bryan Fotino ’20, Joshua Austin ’19 and Rachel Cheng ’21 completed their project on sexual violence resources. Austin said, “EPI is focusing on all of these different aspects of living or experiencing college, and there is an important part here, and that is sex—sex culture, and how people respond to sexual violence, the things that they can do to protect themselves, the things that the College can do to protect them, and also the resources available to them once sexual assault has been committed.” The group discussed Title IX, Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) and ancillary resources such as Baldwin and Metcalf, and posited changes with regard to students, faculty and the institution. Austin noted that that one key initiative involved including re- storative justice as a practice at the College.

Fotino added, “[W]e also did some research… online looking at scholarly journals, and we also used the survey results that were recently released,” referring to the 2017 Survey of Social Behaviors and Student Experiences, the results of which were shared on March 1 (The Miscellany News, “Survey: Sexual assault rate down, but dis- trust in Title IX remains high,” 05.02.2018).

Along with classmates Frank Najarro ’18 and Gabriel Burns ’21, Thao Williams ’20 explored ceremony and ritual through a comprehensive study of the President’s House. Williams recalled in an emailed statement, “President Bradley had recent- ly started holding more events at her home so we decided to look into the events there. Frank, Gabi, and I had all recognized some sort of hesitancy in ourselves in regards to attending events so we were inclined to see why people felt that way and how the house itself perpetuates those feelings.” Speaking to the results of her group’s research, she explained, “Students were really unsure about what the President’s House did for them and often conflated the idea of President Bradley with the house itself. The large majority of students we interviewed said they did not feel comfortable at the house because it represented wealth and opu- lence which they could not identify with.”

Chenette pointed to the presentation as an ex- ample of students’ desire to build a stronger and more affirming campus and noted how it aligned with Bradley’s intentions, stating, “The current president desires to make her house a resource for the entire campus community, not just her home.”

The World Café also welcomed presentations from students who were not enrolled in Community Engaged Research, plus employees. Lowe Swift noted, “These presentations were exciting because they gave EPI an opportunity to expand the universe of ideas and practices around how inclusion and community-building efforts might be extended and given greater depth on our campus, and they were pitched mostly by people who had not been actively involved in EPI.”

One such idea was “MATTChat” from Antonella DeCicci ’20, who expressed in an emailed statement, “This project is loosely based on the TEDTalk model (hence the name) in that it would be a series of presentations by Vassar students, faculty, and administration to share aspects of their academic and personal work that is relevant to a key topic or question relating to belonging and inclusion.” She expects that the short-term impact of the project would be creating a space for open dialogue for disparate groups on community, inclusion and belonging. She added, “The expected long-term impact of this work is to normalize new modes of communication about inclusion and exclusion, to establish a space for sharing of ideas which may not fit into conventional boxes for talks or performances, to strengthen connection and understanding between admin/faculty/ employees/students, and to stimulate more re- flection on how Vassar functions socially.”

While projects enjoyed warm receptions at the World Café itself, student perceptions of the effects of their work going forward ranged from positive to cautious. Speaking on difficulties inherent in his group’s proposal, Austin noted, “I did have quite a few administrators and students asking questions, coming by to further elaborate on how we can work to integrate more of these ideas…the College also admitted that many of these are liability issues, or many of the problems with implementation would come from liability issues, so I spent a lot of time discussing the legality of things and ways to work around those.”

Fotino pointed to the turnout at the World Café as a barrier to producing institutional change: “I haven’t seen any signs that there are going to be any actual changes in college policies, or even in the way the culture surrounding these things at Vassar college functions…there are over 2,000 students and 4,000 staff on this campus, and are the ideas we are presenting really reaching every- one?” Speaking on how to increase engagement in the future, Fotino added, “I think it would great if people could get involved with EPI from all sectors of campus life…because a lot of times Vassar students tend to talk very politically, but they don’t actually take the next step and get involved.”

Indeed, while the World Café was attended by community members from senior administration to students to staff, participants noted their hopes for larger attendance going forward. DeCicci remarked, “I enjoyed the [World Café] as a space for sharing ideas across groups on campus who wouldn’t otherwise interact, but would have liked to see more people (specifically students) in attendance.”

Reflecting on EPI’s progress and looking toward the future, Maragh Taylor said, “It has been critical to have people give input, generate possibilities and ask how they can get involved – people asking about and/or signing up to be involved … I see that as some success. Yet, I’m very aware that there are still some who are not involved. And so, I am interested in future events that can draw in those members of the community. We need those experiences and perspectives too.”

Pliss noted that while, for some students, their engagement with EPI was a for-credit endeavor, other community members take on the project for its own sake despite their other manifold responsibilities. Pliss commented, “I hope it can be some- thing fluid that people can move in and out of, and don’t feel like they have to be a part of every year.”

Lowe Swift pointed to EPI’s local to global focus—suggested by the name of the World Café events—as a core tenet. Referring to a group that presented on May 10, she said that the global cam- pus held its first workshop on May 18. The event was organized by 2017–2018 VSA President Anish Kanoria ’18, Chair of Political Science Himadeep Muppidi and herself, conducted by Brawley and attended by about 40 students, faculty and administrators. Lowe Swift described, “The collective brilliance that was expressed in the room around the topic of globality was awe-inspiring.”

Moreover, EPI’s participants espouse depth and breadth not only in the geographical sense but also in the historical. Bradley recalled, “[E]very presentation had history. So it wasn’t just as if people said, ‘Oh, here’s a problem and here’s the solution,’ but actually, ‘What were the root causes that brought us to the place we are and therefore, what could we think about going forward.’”

Speaking to EPI’s focus on positive evolution, Chenette noted, “It’s not about transforming people to conform to the Vassar that’s been here for 150 years; it’s the opposite. It’s how can we make Vassar the right institution for the members of our community today.” For Chenette, this effort must include active community engagement not only within the confines of Vassar but also with the greater Poughkeepsie community. He clarified, “[T]hat doesn’t mean imposing our will, but rather thinking carefully and working closely, collaborating and ultimately building our capacity to be better citizens wherever we end up living.”

While EPI is a new project and substantive results are yet to come, administrators and students are optimistic about the future. Austin affirmed, “I think that doing a lot of long-term digging into various aspects of a college, or just any institution, will provide significant benefits for learning about how to solve its problems … I was really happy to see that this is a project that will build upon my research from this semester, and will be given to somebody else to continue for the next…I hope that this will result in some major change.”

Lowe Swift emphasized her intention to continue organizing World Café events in the future, pointing out that each event attracts more community members to join the initiative.

Summing up the core of EPI’s mission, Maragh Taylor said, “Ultimately, this is about thoughtfully engaging with others to foster an environment where all members of the Vassar community, especially those who have been historically under- represented…will know they are valued members of the institution.” Speaking to EPI’s unique possibilities, she added, “What a great opportunity we have to experiment in this Vassar lab of ours – to do something that changes this campus and the individuals who live, learn and work here.”

More information on the Engaged Pluralism Initiative, including a full list of working groups, details on chairs and coordinators and instructions on how to get involved can be found here.

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