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Recommendations for Effective Campus-Community Seminars

Communication TipsCommunity Seminars: Tackling Difficult Dialogues

Bob Geary

In Durham, North Carolina, the local board of education just completed its search for a new superintendent of schools. A consultant brought forward six candidates. The board invited three to the city for a series of public forums and interviews with community groups and the media. By the time they left, they were household names in the Bull City-almost as well known as the Duke basketball team.

Durham merged its predominantly African American city schools with the predominantly white county school system a few years ago. Tensions persist. As a result, this open, inclusive process was designed to find a candidate the black and white communities could agree on. At the end, the three black board members voted for the black finalist. The four white members chose one of the two white finalists, over jeers of "racism" from black leaders, which prompted angry responses from whites.

Against this background, Duke University's Community Service Center (CSC), in collaboration with two African American historical associations, decided to sponsor a series of community seminars. AAC&U provided a matching grant to help sponsor these seminars as part of its American Commitments project. In addition to its grant to the CSC, with support from the Ford Foundation, AAC&U also provided small matching grants to nineteen other colleges and universities across the country to sponsor "Community Seminars on Diversity and Democracy: Study Dialogues for Public and Campus Learning."

About forty-five of us participated in the Duke seminars, called "Turning Points in Durham History." The group included community activists and regular folks in about equal numbers (and divided evenly by race), plus a handful of Duke staff and a faculty member or two. During our first meeting, I sat with a woman who heads the local literacy council and is the mother of a four-year-old girl. "I want to understand why the schools are the way they are," she said. For eight weeks, the group studied Durham's black history, its white history, and the complex relationships of color, power, and class that link them. There was a time, in the first half of this century, when Durham's Hayti community was considered a model of black development, I've learned. It was also mightily poor and functioned at the sufferance of Buck Duke, the tobacco king, and the rest of the white political structure. When urban "renewal" destroyed Hayti in the 1960s, blacks blamed it on whites' broken promises. Whites heard only black ingratitude.

By "sorting the myths and realities of Durham's history," as one of our speakers said, we hope to find a genuine basis for shared dialogue about the future of race and education in the city. It's not that blacks and whites don't talk in Durham. They do, all the time. But as Elaine Madison, director of the Duke CSC, said, "very often the environments are political, and they invite extremes, and people end up arguing instead of talking." Moreover, as fast as Durham has grown, most of its residents never saw Hayti, and what they "know" about the city's history may well be myth.

Conversations of Respect

This example is only one model of how a community seminar on diversity and democracy might be organized. While Duke began with formal seminars, Coker College, in rural South Carolina, started with prayer breakfasts. Pacific University in Oregon initially planned a series of seminars led by "experts." But by the third one, the experts had become "facilitators" and the seminars "roundtables."

In discussions with the organizers of these programs, a kind of rough "community seminars planners' guide" emerged in the form of a series of questions: What's the problem we're addressing, and what stage is it in? How can we best address the problem right now, in practical terms? How can we make what we do now work in strategic terms so that people on campus want to sustain dialogues?

So, What Are the Problems?

For Duke and Durham, the major diversity issue is perceived to be black-white relations. The same is true for Coker College in rural South Carolina. At the University of Hawaii, the status of Filipino Americans is much more at issue. Susquehanna University, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, reached out to a growing community of Puerto Rican transplants. Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is located on tribal land and has a traditional commitment to Native Americans, but the emerging issue there involved growing Vietnamese and Cambodian populations.

Even where demographics are similar, community relationships can be vastly different. Unlike Durham, where racial issues are fought out daily and publicly, in Hartsville, South Carolina, they are embedded and not talked about. As Mal Hyman, director of the project at Coker, put it: "There may have been efforts made twenty years ago to promote ethnic harmony, but there haven't been any in contemporary memory." And what was true in the community at large was true of-and heavily influenced by-the community's churches. Churches are black or white. Black ministers and white ministers meet separately. "One of our goals was to have the ministers meeting together," he said.

Being Practical

In planning these sorts of campus-community dialogues, two fundamental questions seem to have come up over and over again. On campus or off? And, how intellectual will we be? The answers inevitably are shaped by who is leading the effort and how well coordinated and integrated the community partners have been throughout the planning process.

Susquehanna chose to be on campus, according to Laurie Crumpacker, dean of arts and sciences, because its primary goal "was to educate the campus about the opportunities for service and learning" that exist in the Harrisburg area. The highlight, a two-day visit by Esmeraldo Santiago, author of When I Was Puerto Rican, followed a seminar on the immigrant experience and was followed by a discussion of community issues led by the governor's advisor on Latino affairs. The college's Spanish and sociology classes will be studying these issues further, and a series of college-community meetings are planned to decide how to tackle them.

By contrast, Magda Costantino, director of Evergreen's Center for Educational Improvement, took her efforts off campus. Tired of hearing area teachers complain that the parents of Asian immigrant children "never get involved" because they don't come into the schools, Costantino arranged for the children to go home with disposable cameras "and shoot pictures of their parents working with them on homework or in the many other forms that learning takes place at home."

The result of this project is a "precious collection" circulating in the schools, building the Asian kids' pride and others' understanding. "These kids have been marginalized," Costantino said. "This project is helping bring them to the attention of their schools." With this "jump start," two school districts are working on diversity planning in order to be more inclusive.

The University of Wisconsin Centers took a nine-week seminar on diversity in the "heartland" to the Sheboygan-Manitowoc community. Richard Flannery, who ran it, said participants thought it was too academic and "needlessly divisive." He wrote afterward, "We (academics) foster a kind of dialectical exchange among ourselves which is ritualized combat, confrontation and conflict. Out in the community, however, the ritual tends to get lost, while the conflict is exacerbated. As community leaders of all kinds are more highly educated, they bring some of these habits into the public square."

Strategic Planning: Bringing Faculty and Students into Community Dialogues

A common problem among many seminars seemed to be that if community people were involved, faculty members and students weren't. At Duke, none of the planners or speakers are faculty members, and only a couple have attended. "They've told us they don't know the Durham issues," one of the organizers said.

"We're very pleased at the ownership the community has taken," said Ellen Hasty, director of Pacific University's Humanitarian Center, which coordinates service learning and community outreach. "And we've had some people on campus who are enormously personally committed to this, they don't see themselves as just a dean or a faculty member-we're all ambassadors to the community."

But halfway through Pacific's series of six seminars, when the semester changed and schedules changed with it, "it just blew me away, the faculty disappeared from our planning meetings," Hasty said. On the other hand, President Faith Gabelnick has attended all of the seminars, "which sends a message to the community that this is important to us."

At a number of the schools in the project, the seminars were organized by community services or student affairs staff, and faculty involvement was episodic. In the short term, it may be enough for the college or university to reach out with one arm to diverse community groups-one arm is better than none. And it may be enough to study diversity as texts. But faculty, and courses, are the heart of the institution. Surely, communities will soon see that their welcome to the campus is limited. And what kind of message do students get about diversity if they study it only in the classroom and are not asked to engage the community close up?

Bob Geary is a local resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, and a freelance journalist. He reported on diversity issues for the Ford Foundation's Fifth Annual Campus Diversity Initiative Conference.

Communication tips

If you're planning a seminar open to the public and the media, consider using the media to invite the community into the conversation. If you are planning a forum, speech, or "town meeting"-type of event, use the media to alert people through radio or television public service announcements; community calendars on radio, on broadcast or cable television, or in newspapers; or advance news stories.

Try also to generate a news story on the event. You increase prospects for coverage by involving a local luminary-a college or university president, prominent public official, well-known religious leader, or civic leader. Don't only ask mainstream media to cover an event; remember also to invite journalists from weekly newspapers, ethnic and community press, and newsletters with readers who may be interested.

This kind of media outreach will let you reach more people and help the public recognize how these new dialogues strengthen the community and enrich the learning experiences for all participants.

Recommendations for Effective Campus-Community Seminars

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