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Communication tipsStudents and Trustees: Critical Dialogues on Diversity

Lorna Gonsalves-Pinto, Director, Office of Diversity Initiatives, Bowling Green State University

Institutional leaders at Bowling Green State University (BGSU), one of the first universities in the region to institute a cultural diversity requirement, believe that multicultural literacy is a prerequisite to becoming an educated person in a multicultural world. In an effort to further this element of BGSU's mission, our president, Sidney Ribeau, recently invited trustees and students to come together to engage in dialogues about issues of race and ethnicity.

This two-hour class, which I taught, sought to:

  • bridge two of BGSU's communities-students and trustees-to promote a shared understanding of the aims and nature of diversity education;
  • provide trustees with an opportunity to experience directly what it is like to participate in an ethnic studies class; and
  • provide a forum for students and trustees to critically examine issues of race and ethnicity and to learn from and about each other's perspectives.

One of the challenges was to ensure that individuals, despite their status differentials, would actively participate in class activities. Providing participants with an opportunity to share their thoughts on the class dynamics was the first item on the agenda. As a starting point, I utilized anonymous sharing, a strategy that I have developed to elicit candid responses in settings where individuals are not familiar with each other. Participants' initial responses ranged from discomfort and nervousness to curiosity and excitement.

After this exercise, individuals participated in a process of introspection as they responded to a mini-survey. This survey tapped into personal stereotypes or "pictures in the mind" and opened up a discussion regarding perceptions of racial and ethnic groups and the impact of these perceptions on interpersonal communication. The goals of ethnic studies were addressed through the use of simple graphics representing the move from noncritical monocultural perspectives to critical multicultural perspectives.

The highlight of the class was a debate on the question: Should all BGSU faculty members, administrators, and trustees be required to learn how to address and deal with issues of diversity? One team argued that this type of learning should be required; the other team argued that it should not. After a brief discussion period, spokespersons for each team presented arguments to support their points of view. The classroom atmosphere was charged. Opening statements, rebuttals, and closing statements were often accompanied by cheers and/or boos. As each round approached, trustees and students huddled together in their groups and a great deal of information was generated and exchanged.

In the last half-hour, participants shared comments about both the content and the process of the class. By this time, trustees and students alike were able to discuss these issues more candidly than before. The class closed with informal one-on-one interactions between the participants.

I found that all of the "students" in the class were enthusiastic participants in these sometimes difficult dialogues. Even in such a limited time frame, participants were able to delve into some of the deeper issues concerning racial and ethnic diversity. Many participants expressed hopes that this class would lead to ongoing dialogues among students and trustees.

For Bowling Green State University or any education institution to address and deal with issues of race and ethnicity effectively, leaders must take the initiative to engage and educate potential allies like trustees or other concerned members of the community. Individuals at all levels of educational institutions need to become involved in critical discussions of these issues. Campus personnel need to create opportunities which are conducive to critical discussions about diversity. Within these spaces, participants can move beyond mere superficialities and situate discussions within contexts of history, politics, economics, and, most importantly, the complex system of power relations within which we all function.

Communication tips

If trustees are involved in your institution's diversity work, they also may be effective spokespeople with the media. Unexpected spokespeople--a trustee who also is a prominent business leader, for instance--can make a story more interesting to a producer or editor, and thus more likely to make it onto the air or into print.

If your college or university is building a public profile on diversity, explore whether anyone affiliated with the institution is well enough informed and comfortable enough to speak to the media about that work. The story may be more appealing to journalists if you offer them interviews with a prominent trustee in addition to interviews with students, faculty members, and administration officials.

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