The hot topics on college campuses across America are diversity and inclusion. But how do faculty and staff start those talks, and how do they handle them?
Those were just some of the questions answered during a virtual seminar called Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation presented June 22-25 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Thomas Nelson was among 78 institutions invited to participate. Those representing the College were Kadisia Archer (Student Life and Leadership), Marian Clifton (Public Safety, Allied Health and Human Services), Keisha Samuels (Human Services), Sgt. Kathy Shannon (campus police ) and Dr. Patrick Smith (Psychology).
“For me, the main thing was really to learn how to carry on the conversation,” Smith said. “They taught us how to do that.”
He has been interested in the conversation about race in this country for several years, but he had concerns. What if people got upset? What if people had negative experiences? What if people got angry or dismissive?
“We learned a lot of really good techniques on how to help people, how to open up conversations, how to get people to talk and share,” he said, mentioning what the organizers called healing circles. “I think that was probably the main thing.”
“They gave us innovative ideas on how to raise a community together and how to have different discussions based on the diverse backgrounds,” she said.
It’s important to have honest conversations now, she said.
“Right now, it’s kind of like taboo to talk about race,” she said. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about it because they’re uncomfortable with the conversation. But the conversation needs to be had in order for us to move forward.”
For Smith, the seminar was a long time in the making. About five years ago, he was working with the Association of American Colleges and Universities on something else and noticed literature on this topic. He thought it would benefit Thomas Nelson, which serves such a diverse community and has a diverse faculty and student body. Things finally aligned allowing the College to be represented this year.
“With things really coming to a head (in 2020), there’s really a lot more support for racial healing and societal transformation,” he said. “That was really what was able to give us the opportunity to go this year.”
Samuels agreed the timing couldn’t have been better.
“We needed to go based on the initiatives we started here,” she said. “How could we move forward?”
The conference involved more than listening to lectures and attending workshops. Each college had to develop a plan for their institutions. For the Thomas Nelson contingent, one aspect involves exposing students, faculty, staff, and administrators to the racial healing circles.
“We really do have practical plans that we’re working for this fall,” Smith said.
Among those are for faculty members to create safe environments where students can share openly without being attacked.
“That’s tough,” he said, noting that as a psychology professor his classes are conducive to conversation and discussion. “But I learned some really good ways of helping people feel safer and feel comfortable and feel like they can open up.”
He said no matter what the class is, students need to be encouraged to think, listen to each other and understand. In other words: “How to agree and disagree without tearing somebody down or getting angry at somebody just because they basically have had different life experiences that leave them to believe something differently.”
Samuels and Shannon said they are already using some of the things they learned at the seminar.
“Right now with campus police, there’s a big push through the department of criminal justice on biased and unbiased policing, explicit and implicit bias,” Shannon said. “ All those classes and training will benefit us and help us serve the College community better.”
It also reaches beyond the job.
“Not only do you have to have those skills sets in law enforcement, but you just need it as people,” she said. “You need to know how to deal with someone who’s different from you.”
The diversity of the Thomas Nelson representatives brought home that message.
“It was important because we had different people from different backgrounds, and everybody was not faculty,” Shannon said. “The opportunity to see different people in different perspectives and hear their take on it, it was an advantage.”
The event was billed as a chance for those in higher education “to learn and collaborate to make change happen on campuses.”
For Samuels, it also brought something else.
“Hope,” she said. “This is a huge, huge mountain to climb, but progress is being made.”