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Communication tipsTalking About Race
Joann Stevens, Vice President for Communications, Association of American Colleges and Universities

The room was electric with anticipation, perhaps even a touch of anxiety about what the morning conversation would bring. About 60 people from metropolitan New York arrived at Time Warner Cable’s offices on West 19th Street on this crisp April morning, invited by four higher education leaders to talk about race during the “Campus Week of Dialogue on Race” launched by the President’s Initiative on Race (PIR). The group included business and community leaders, students, politicians, clergy, and educators of different races, ethnicities, and religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.

As a video crew captured the action, WNET anchor Steve Adubato, Jr. moderated the five person panel and studio audience with finesse. He built on the passionate moments, encouraged humor, and teased out provocative thoughts while simultaneously maintaining a steady tempo of civility and honesty as people discussed some of the most racially sensitive topics of the past decade: Student reaction to the first O.J. Simpson murder trial. The murder of rapper Tupac Shakur. The economy and affirmative action. Views about intergroup relations and segregation of groups on campus. Thoughts about ethnic studies and teaching children about race and prejudice. Each topic was broached directly, but without the rancor, provocation, or victimization that often characterizes such exchanges.

This candor and deeper conversation, coordinators claim, was the purpose behind this dialogue. It was neither inspired by a racial incident nor a desire for shock talk, but a call to community action--action to facilitate the goals of AAC&U’s latest diversity initiative, Racial Legacies and Learning: An American Dialogue. The initiative is mobilizing campus/community partnerships nationwide to encourage teaching and learning about race and to facilitate greater public and campus awareness of campus diversity practices. Guided by these goals, coordinators say productive civil discourse about race is possible, providing partners are willing to “talk, listen, and act” to better prepare college students for a multicultural world.

“Where race is the subject, talking and listening are forms of action,” says Bloomfield College President John Noonan, one of the four coordinators and a participant in the discussion. “The participants showed great strength in both of these important areas. And the videotape of that conversation has provided an important catalyst for similar dialogues at Bloomfield College and other colleges across the country.” (To order a copy of the videotape, “Why Can’t We Talk About Race?”, see Resources)

At Wagner College, the videotape will be used this fall to facilitate dialogue between community partners, faculty, and all first-year students says Richard Guarasci, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “The conversation was incredibly important in bringing our community partners and college folk back together, and in recommitting ourselves to this kind of partnership and community service,” says Guarasci.

Community partner Time Warner Cable Television, played a critical role in documenting the event. Gerri Warren Merrick, vice president for public affairs, arranged for the company to contribute the camera crew, producer, and production editors that produced the broadcast quality video.

The New York Coalition--comprised of City College-City University of New York, Wagner College, the State University of New York-Stony Brook, and Bloomfield College (NJ)--is among more than 50 institutions participating in Racial Legacies and Learning, supported by the Ford Foundation. This fall, the Coalition will hold a New York Summit at City College, bringing together metropolitan area campuses and community leaders to build on the ideas shared last April as they conceptualize new campus/community partnerships that can deepen racial understanding both on campus and in the metropolitan New York area.

For information about Racial Legacies and Learning and participating schools in your area, see http://www.diversityweb.org/.

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Communication tips

Events like the one sponsored by the New York Coalition illustrate the value of media partnerships. Television or cable stations can provide facilities at which to hold events, and document and/or broadcast them. They also can provide invaluable advance publicity if the event will be open to the public, and provide high-profile anchor people or reporters to serve as moderators.

When seeking a media partner, approach a station or cable network that has a history of such partnerships and an established interest in the topic. It is best if a prominent person--such as a college or university president--approaches the public service director and the general manager of the station to propose the partnership. Don’t be shy about approaching multiple media; at times a television or radio station and a newspaper will collaborate as partners for the same event.

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