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Town Hall addresses diversity on campus

Photo+by+Eve+Lyons-Berg
Photo by Eve Lyons-Berg

The College held two Town Hall sessions on Tuesday, Feb. 25 to address diversity, engaging in a wide array of issues on campus through a loosely-structured format of in-depth guided discussions. Both sessions were well-attended by a variety of students, staff and faculty who presented their own experiences and encounters with biases and their understanding of differences at Grinnell.

Both events were hosted by the SGA and the Council on Diversity & Inclusion. They were held at noon and 7:30 p.m. in JRC 101 and Harris, respectively.

Photo by Eve Lyons-Berg
Photo by Eve Lyons-Berg

VPSA and President-elect Opeyemi Awe ’15 worked closely with Henry Rietz ’89, Religious Studies, to facilitate questions and encourage civil discourse with the goal of approaching ideas critically.

“The overarching goal for this Town Hall is checking with the community and making sure we are doing what we need to do,” Awe explained. “If not, we will need course correcting.”

Facing growing student discontent about the College’s willingness to address diversity, President Kington held several listening sessions last year with concerned students before agreeing to hold a Town Hall. Awe said that several important questions have to be answered now that the discussion has expanded to the entire campus.

“Is somebody checking in with you? Do you know who you can talk to? Are you feeling supported in those little things? We want to know,” Awe said. “For example, Posse students have a really great network, but do students with accessibility issues have the accommodations they need? We need to be more aware of all of that. The lack thereof can strongly affect learning experiences.”

Throughout the noon session in JRC 101, attendees focused on the issues of implicit and unconscious bias concerning faculty and staff, teaching diversity, awareness and support for students with accessibility issues, the problems associated with institutionalizing diversity and the Grinnell bubble.

Various faculty members mentioned the creation of workshops for teaching in a diverse community and suggested what students could do to help them recognize issues of which they aren’t aware. Associate Dean of the College for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Poonam Arora outlined some of the programs set in place to address these issues.

“VPSA [Awe] and [Associate Dean of Students] Andrea Conner will host a section on implicit bias this fall,” Arora said. “We will also [have] a consultant coming 10 days from now to discuss recruiting and hiring practices, when we have invited all department chairs and supervisors to recognize implicit bias.”

In regards to students with accessibility issues and speech impediments, Jen Brooks ’15 detailed the ways in which she felt that the College had failed these students.

“Over the past few years that I’ve been here, there have been some major issues concerning disability diversity,” Brooks said. “One example is the assisted technology debacle. We have outlets for other types of diversity and avenues for certain individuals who have a voice. Why isn’t this possible, why hasn’t this been done with individuals with disabilities?”

Kington acknowledged that the College’s lack of action on this particular issue of diversity was troubling and needed to be prioritized.

“I fundamentally agree that this is one of the places where we need to get a grip on what the best practices are,” Kington said. “If there’s anything we learned about the tech debacle, it’s that we have to figure out how to get this to work better together. Every single piece needs to be working at the right time.”

Kesho Scott, American Studies and Sociology, voiced her sentiments regarding the ways in which diversity was being approached on campus. Professor Scott emphasized the need for people who are outside the sphere of inclusion and power to be the ones making the changes, rather than a top-down relationship.

“We are talking about institutionalizing diversity, whose outcome isn’t to share power,” Scott said. “The same people are always talking about what diversity is … but the history of inclusion in this country came from people that were excluded. We have to think broadly with … the very body of literature that created an initial template for including the institutional discussion.”

In regards to the Grinnell bubble, Strahinja Matejic ’17 described how he felt about the strengthening of this insulated environment.

“One negative thing is that we spend four years here and we hear a lot about people talking about the Grinnell bubble,” Matejic said. “However, there’s not a lot of thought happening about the transition from the Grinnell community to the real world. People are going from one background to another and we need to focus on the diversity in the real world.”

Second-session attendees in Harris were more vocal regarding staffing issues in diversity offices, the College’s bookkeeping and the balance of accountability between students and faculty in the discussion of diversity.

Kington acknowledged the inherent difficulties in introducing the kind of diversity that students are interested in.

“Counts, which simply measure how many people we have in each category, are the easy part,” Kington said. “The second part is ‘difference and lived experience,’ which examines every dimension of life on campus. That’s much more ambiguous, and much harder to understand.”

Suggestions from students included advancing dialogue from classes, wherein responsibility would fall on both parties, in addition to revamped programs conducted during New Student Orientation (NSO).

“It goes beyond academic devotion to classes that just talk about diversity,” Tess Given ’15 said. “Advancing that dialogue falls on faculty and staff.”

Students also mentioned what they felt were the implicit failures in NSO programs, which they believe did more to exclude than include.

“The programs are segmented into different pots that divide from the get-go,” said ACE Coordinator Natalie Richardson Gentil ’14.

“GSP or PCPOP formed groups, so they were already a clique,” said SGA Assistant Treasurer Gargi Magar ’16 in the first session. “I’d like to know if there’s a way to make it more inclusive for NSO.”

On another note, the recent Posse retreat took front and center when the College’s hiring and spending policies were mentioned in regards to diversity staff and resource allocation.

“For the weekend, we spent 6,000 dollars on transport, 40,000 dollars on rooms and food at the hotel and we give 70,000 dollars to the Posse Foundation for the work they do recruiting students,” Arora said. “Sadly, people abuse these opportunities. We offer opportunities and opportunities are wasted.”

Students also criticized the lack of diversity staff and the lack of openness in the hiring process for new staff, which they felt weakened the institution’s efforts to create a diverse community.

Kington responded that this impression exists because Grinnell’s diversity staff is not located in the same unit, and comparisons across colleges are very difficult. In addition, he mentioned that the College would focus on complete transparency when creating a search committee for an assistant director and that four students would be recruited to lend input to the search.

While significant portions of both Town Halls were dedicated to change within the institution, faculty and SGA members asked that students work together with them in addition to vocalizing their concerns.

“We have to ask ourselves to be sustainable and accountable students,” said SGA President Thomas Neil ’14. “We ask a lot of these [Multicultural Leadership Council] leaders, of our student leaders, but we need to be responsible for ourselves.”

Arora elaborated on what she said is the need for everyone to set aside their own agendas in order to increase collaboration between groups, organizations and individuals.

“Diversity is a messy business and it can’t be taught,” Arora said. “Diversity has to be self-motivated, and that’s what helps us, the College, help you. It’s not just about your identity politics.”

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