diversity digest
Summer 02
Curriculum Transformation
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Facing You, Facing Me: Race, Class and Gender Among U.C. Berkeley Student Leaders
By David Stark, Director of Stiles Hall, and Jerlena Griffin, Director of Residential Living and New Student Services at University of California–Berkeley


 


"TYPICAL CLASSROOMS ARE LACKING IN SUBSTANTIAL EXCHANGE OR ENCOUNTERS AMONG AND BETWEEN STUDENTS. THERE IS NOT MUCH TIME FOR, AND OFTEN LESS PATIENCE FOR, AN INTERACTIONIST MODEL OF LEARNING. IN CONTRAST, STILES HALL'S (FACING YOU, FACING ME) IS THE DRAMATIC EXCEPTION. (THE SEMINAR) PERMITS A KIND OF ONGOING PROBING AND REFLECTION THAT IS THE FERTILE GROUNDS FOR GENERATING A GENUINE SHIFT IN UNDERSTANDING AND PERCEPTION." TROY DUSTER, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR THE TEACHING AND STUDY OF AMERICAN CULTURES AND PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF SOCIOLOGY AT U.C. BERKELEY.

The University of California at Berkeley enjoyed a richly diverse student body in 1987. In spite of this diversity, students tended to interact primarily with their own ethnic group and the University provided few, if any, structured opportunities for students to engage in real, in-depth dialogue about racial, class, and gender differences. As a result, Stiles Hall, a 117-year-old community service agency with a historic commitment to racial justice, and the ethnic studies department agreed to co-sponsor an innovative seminar. In the last fifteen years, over 1,000 student leaders from exceptionally diverse backgrounds have participated.

This student-centered interactive three-hour seminar facilitated by an interracial team focuses on genuine sharing and learning from each other’s life experience in an informal, open setting--something unique to most students’ experience. “This is the only class I’ve taken that’s about me, rather than what I do,” wrote one participant. Indeed, many students stated that it was “the most valuable class they had taken at Cal (U.C. Berkeley).”

The seminar has consistently drawn one of the most diverse groups of student leaders anywhere on campus, including four of the last five associated student presidents, student recruitment and retention center directors, fraternity and sorority presidents, and numerous other student group leaders.

Students are given structured opportunities to get to know each other as individuals before dealing with each other as members of racial/ethnic/class groups. These opportunities include in-depth personal introductions and “homework” students assign to each other. For example, the president of a prominent sorority, whose father managed a fruit packing company, accompanied the son of a farm worker for a day of work in the fields. Another student might assign a fellow student to attend her sorority dinner or his gospel church service.

Student engagement and accompanying homework are at the center of the curriculum. Theoretical concepts and scholarly research on the issues of race, class, and gender become a part of the curriculum when students introduce them from other university courses. In addition, students conduct a large part of the seminar themselves. Each racial and ethnic group facilitates an interactive session around their own experiences. Chicano/Latino students might conduct a role-play of an elementary school class entirely in Spanish--criticizing those who don’t understand the proceedings and relating this to their own childhood experiences. Finally, the instructors encourage genuine dialogue using dyads, small groups, and discussion of readings.

Once the students have developed a degree of trust and respect across racial, class, and gender lines, the challenge is to help bring the conflict inherent in the students’ different life circumstances out into the open. Two “types” of student participants were helpful in this--students who have personally experienced the oppressive side of society and those who are clearly from a more privileged, elite background.

The first type was exemplified in one class by the proud, uncompromising presence of two Native American women who grew up on reservations. Calmly, but firmly they would state, “I grew up surrounded by White people who were cruel and bigoted towards my people. I don’t trust Whites and am quite suspicious of those who want to ‘help’ us.” Another example of this were two outspoken African American students--one of whom saw her sisters starve to death while she was growing up in Ghana, and the other who watched nearly all of his West Oakland peers either get killed by police, gangs, and drugs, or be jailed. They both spoke from the heart and with great humanity, while remaining uncompromising in shedding light on examples of institutional and individual racism.

The second type of student was exemplified by Ex-Governor Wilson’s Northern California Youth Coordinator, who appeared on the Jim Lehrer News Hour, opposing affirmative action. He was clearly quite privileged, willing to say honestly what he thought, and yet genuinely open to other ideas. In the end, he questioned his opposition to affirmative action.

In sum, in order to have a genuine exchange, four key elements seem necessary--elements often missing from structured “diversity experiences” on campuses:

1. White students should be in the minority. People in power typically don’t “feel” their privilege, and people on the bottom, when in the minority, don’t easily share what they know.

2. Half the participants should be low-income or working class. Class diversity is the crucial missing element in most elite university settings.

3. Gender conflict is the most unifying and safest one to address first. However, sexism must be addressed seriously.

4. Once racism by Whites and others against Blacks, in particular, is honestly confronted, the complexities of other intra- and inter-group prejudice can emerge.

The seminar’s unique sharing across racial and ethnic lines impressed many faculty participants. Professor Margaret Wilkerson, chair of the African American studies department 1989-94, commented, after conducting some role-plays about interracial dating: “I wish we could clone this class across the campus.” David Campt, staff member of President Clinton’s Commission on Race, and former co-facilitator of the seminar, stated, “Nowhere else at the university, and perhaps in the state, have such a diversity of social, socio-economic, and political student perspectives been engaged in such a profound manner.”

The veil of daily, systematic discrimination experienced by women, working class people, and people of color is rarely lifted and experienced by whites, middle class adults and men. We believe that to the degree that those on both sides of the veil have a genuine, equal exchange, they will become more competent, alive and human for the encounter. It is out of these beliefs that we developed the seminar.

For more information see: www.stileshall.org.


Learning occurs in the classroom, in student living situations, and perhaps most powerfully, it occurs when students are able to see firsthand the connections between their classroom instruction and their real world experiences.


 

 

 
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