The Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences initiative was born in 2014, courtesy of an anonymous benefactor. According to Assistant to the President and Associate Professor of Chemistry Christopher Smart, “The gift was to be used to support talks, workshops, performances and the like, that would allow for productive discourse and exchange of ideas on contentious issues of importance to the campus.” However, being a gift, the fund was not intended to be a permanent resource. While many visions have been realized thanks to the fund, Smart explained in an email, “Originally, it was imagined that the funding would last for two years, and these would have been 2014-15 and 2015-16. The fund was not completely spent as of May 2016, and it was determined that another year(or until funds ran out) of Dialogue and Engagement activities could be supported.”
Since there is sufficient funding remaining for the 2016-2017 academic year, the President’s Office sent out a campus-wide email on Oct. 12 asking for proposals for new programming. Aiming to spur participation, the email reads, “Would you like to create a campus-wide event, series of events, or residency that engages a potentially divisive social issue or provides opportunities to practice such engagement? Can you and your colleagues or group organize events or occasions for exploring issues constructively in the face of deep-rooted and intense disagreements?” According to Interim President Jonathan Chenette, a wide range of proposals will be considered, so students and staff should submit their ideas without inhibition.
Chenette clarified the mission of the initiative in an email, explaining, “[T]he initiative is not intended as another source of funding for regular ‘one-off’ visiting lecturers but rather for events (including lectures that address directly ideas about engaging in difficult dialogues) that examine controversial issues facing the Vassar community and society at large in ways that promote conversation and engagement across differences.” Part of what distinguishes the programming that emerges from this initiative is that event planners are encouraged to embrace longer forms, enabling sustained discussions of intricate topics that may be better served by a series of conversations, rather than one lecture.
Past programming sponsored by the fund has included multi-part lectures and workshops, such as artist and activist Andrea Gibson’s performance and workshop in February 2016 and Frederick M. Lawrence’s live-streamed lecture “Free Speech vs. Hate Speech: The Changing Contours of Free Expression” and the follow-up campus discussion in March 2016. Programming can be any subject that promotes active discussion of crucial issues, and has included political, social and religious topics in the past. One of this semester’s events sponsored by the fund was Yavilah McCoy’s Sept. 15 lecture on “Faith, Race, Power and Privilege.” Chenette explained that her lecture was an example of successful programming, saying, “The visit of Yavilah McCoy earlier this semester seemed a perfect match for the goals of the Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences initiative. She brought together conversations around race and around Jewish identity in a way that contributed powerfully to dialogue between groups that seldom have occasion to face these issues together.”
Students, faculty, administrators and staff are encouraged to submit ideas to the President’s Office. Their proposals should be well thought out, including a title for the proposed program, an abstract, a detailed description of the event or lecture, a budget plan and ideal outcomes and goals. The newly formed President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion will consider the proposals and decide where to allocate the initiative’s funds. The Council includes professors and administrators from several departments and offices, as well as student liaison VSA President Calvin Lamothe ’17.
Despite the multiple requirements to submit an official proposal, Assistant Professor of Dance Miriam Mahdaviani assured in an email, “Proposing a project is fairly simple. I encourage anyone who is passionate about an issue to bring it to the President’s Office.” She and Associate Professor of History Leslie Offutt have organized two events funded by the initiative, dealing specifically with racial divisions both on campus and nationwide. While the Dialogue fund provided the financial means to invite speakers to campus and put on the two events, the professors-turned-organizers also enjoyed the support of co-sponsoring colleagues and an abundance of student participants. “Their participation reflects Vassar’s commitment to exploring differing viewpoints, increasing awareness, and discovering ways to be respectful of each other,” Mahdaviani reflected. “Perhaps these programs will even challenge our own views, and help us to think in new ways about important issues.”
Past participants in these programs are optimistic about the initiative’s potential to open up important conversations on campus. Jason Storch ’17, who has attended events sponsored by Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences in the past, remarked in an email, “[A]t Vassar, we strive to hear as diverse a spectrum of opinions as possible. [The initiative] enables that. If there is a position not being heard and there are not student groups or departments that will invest in programming or speakers, as was certainly the case with the Bret Stephens talk, it is important that students have the outlet of [the initiative] to have their opinions and narratives heard.”
As the Council searches for programming for the rest of the year, there are already scheduled events to look forward to. One such event is transgender advocate and athlete Chris Mosier’s Nov. 14-15 visit to the campus. He will give a lecture entitled “Breaking Barriers: Trans Inclusion in Sports” and conduct a workshop about fostering inclusive climates. Because the initiative is so flexible and lends itself to a variety of program styles and topics, proposals can be imaginative. “As the Vassar community grows and evolves, it’s incredibly important to have support for ways in which to engage with the multiple perspectives on this campus,” Mahdaviani agreed. “The Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences initiative provides encouragement and facilitation of dialogue, an important first step to connecting with and understanding each other.”