April 05, 2016, BY Paula Cogan Myers

The moment I began to realize that others defined me by my race.

The alternative spring break experience that shifted my career path.

The day I was asked to share my perspective in class as a representative for all minorities.

The first time I spoke up about sexist language.

The way I am marginalized in my own academic field.

These are all examples of stories shared during Bucknell University's first annual Diversity Summit, held March 29–30. The summit gave presenters and participants the opportunity to consider stories like these both in an academic context and through the lens of personal narrative while focusing on this year's theme — Identity, Inclusion and Social Transformation: Centering Race, Power and Privilege.

Diversity & Inclusion Fellow Carmen Henne-Ochoa said that choosing the word "centering" in the title was important. "Centering acknowledges that it's difficult to address all of our multiple identities, even though we know they all come into play," she said. "In addition, our reflex is to externalize these types of conversations, but centering asks us to recognize ourselves in them."

The idea for the summit developed out of the 2014–19 Diversity Plan as a way to bring the community together to actively teach and learn about issues of diversity and inclusion, one of Bucknell's core values, said Associate Provost for Diversity Bridget Newell.

"We wanted to highlight the Bucknell community's experience and expertise related to diversity and inclusion and create a space for mutual teaching and learning among faculty, staff and students," she said. "We assumed that the depth of content would leave participants with ideas to both reflect on and apply in their daily lives across campus. Some of this application may take the form of practicing what they know. In other cases, people will be developing new, more inclusive habits of mind."

Students share ideas from group conversations during the Diversity Summit Community Dinner — Trigger Warnings: Sensitivity or Coddling? Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications.
Students share ideas from group conversations during the Diversity Summit Community Dinner — Trigger Warnings: Sensitivity or Coddling? Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications.

The summit started with a community dinner hosted by the first-year cohort of Posse Scholars from Los Angeles and their mentor, Associate Provost Robert Midkiff. The students came to Bucknell through the Posse Foundation, which chose them for their exceptional academic and leadership potential. They were joined by more than 100 attendees who came together to discuss the timely topic of whether trigger warnings — phrases at the beginning of syllabi, articles or internet posts that warn the reader that sexually explicit or violent content follows — should be characterized as sensitivity or coddling. The facilitators shared audio clips and images before asking each table to grapple with specific questions. Conversations ranged from the importance of trigger warnings for survivors of violence to the dampening effect they might have on the impact of difficult images and messages.

Meliissa Harris-Perry
Melissa Harris-Perry, Maya Angelou Presidential Chair in Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University, gives the keynote address at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications.

Later that evening, keynote speaker Melissa Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair in Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University, focused on the centrality of courage as a frame for her talk, "Blackness and Transformation: Nation and Campus." Harris-Perry's talk was this year's Black Experiences Lecture, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Gender.

Her message juxtaposed the election of President Barack Obama as a new embodiment of the American presidency with the fact of ongoing problems associated with the broad societal attitudes about race and the value of black bodies. She implored students to challenge themselves in college and thanked those who act as engaged citizens at Bucknell and beyond.

"The distinction Harris-Perry drew between being a problem and having a problem in relation to her discussion on blackness and black bodies was something I'd never thought of in this way before, and I think it is a really helpful distinction," said Jessie Ashworth '16. "It revealed how deep some of the inequalities in our society run. I also think the description of what she feels the college experience should be was right on point — we, as college students, should expose ourselves to people who disagree with us and who will challenge our worldview and assumptions."

Diversity Summit Workshop
Participants learn about the benefits and challenges of building a diverse and inclusive community in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) workforce during the workshop, "Success STEMs from Diversity and Inclusion." Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications.

Wednesday's workshops, planned and led by more than 100 students, faculty, staff and alumni, addressed a variety of topics. Formats included:

  • Panels, including "Narrative and Race," led by Peg Cronin, writing and teaching consultant, James Haile, philosophy postdoctoral fellow and Professor Anthony Stewart, English, who shared both grounding examples of race and narrative in the humanities and their own stories regarding their experiences with race.

  • Workshops, including "Beyond the Bubble: How Alternative Breaks Transform Perceptions of Race, Class and Identity," led by Adem Ahmed '16, Ahmed Elnaiem '16, Julianne Pearson '16, Ashlynn Trimmer '16 and Janice Butler, director of civic engagement, who discussed the impact of alternative break trips on everything from students' intellectual interests and career paths to their understanding of economic, political and social problems in various communities.

  • Facilitated dialogues, like "White Like Us: A Facilitated Discussion of Whiteness and Privilege," led by Professors Abe Feuerstein, education, and Roger Rothman, art & art history, two white male professors who engaged participants in discussion about whiteness to better advance self-understanding and an understanding of institutional factors that perpetuate racism as a first step to participate more actively in the work of anti-racism. 

Atiya Stokes-Brown, professor of political science and diversity & inclusion faculty fellow, said that the sessions allowed participants to reflect on their own experiences by hearing those of others. "Part of the goal is to help people start with themselves," she said. "The summit allowed space for emotions while emphasizing that this work leads to further developing cultural competence and engaging across difference on campus."

Diversity Summit Student Activism
Students present their research and experience on student activism during  the "Student Activism and the Academy" panel discussion. Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications.  

That engagement was reflected during "Student Activism and the Academy," a panel that Ryan Frazier '16, Ashley Lopez '18, Nneoma Ibezim '18, Shirah Moffat-Darko '18, Dejda Collins '16 and Mohammed Elnaiem '16 prepared for months to present, which left participants with both new understanding and ideas for action. They interwove their experiences with research on the role of the media, social media and personal narrative in framing effective activism; tokenizing students of color both inside and outside the classroom; the systemic inequality inherent in our education system; and the complex conversation around the idea of the oppressed elite and how inclusion within the academy can be a limiting concept.

"I'm very grateful to our students," said Stokes-Brown. "We are in a position to be able to do some of the work that we are doing because of their courage, bravery and willingness to give voice to their everyday experiences in a very thoughtful and responsive way."

The summit closed with writer Caryl Phillips speaking on employing the life and legacy of James Baldwin as a way to consider questions surrounding the intersections of African-American art, activism and aesthetics. He also talked about his personal sense of the ways that African-American artists engage questions of aesthetic excellence and concerns about social justice.

Diversity Summit Caryl Phillips
Writer Caryl Phillips closes the Diversity Summit in the Stadler Center for Poetry. Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications.

"Phillips mentioned how some artists might try to hide from this unwanted responsibility while others fully embrace it," said Dinah Tsegaye '18. "As someone who wants to work in the film and media industry and publish writing of my own, this is something that I struggle with as well. I'm not sure if I want my art to merely be a reflection of what my life is like as an Ethiopian-American who is constantly having people around me attempting to either whitewash or stereotype me, or if it's something I want to use to outright challenge others and speak for marginalized groups."

Phillips' talk was part of African-American Art, Activism & Aesthetics/Honoring the Legacy of James Baldwin series, co-sponsored by the Griot Institute for Africana Studies, the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Gender and the Stadler Center for Poetry.