Finding the Center 2011 closed with an Action-Planning Session by Dr. Debbie Storrs (University of Idaho Professor of Sociology and the Associate Dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences) and Dr. Traci Craig (University of Idaho Associate Professor of Psychology and Communication Studies). Dr. Storrs and Dr. Craig explained the notion of the local superhero—a member of the community who takes selfless action within his or her personal spheres of influence to challenge inequality or incivility. Conference participants were asked to identify their own potential spheres of influence and to commit to a local superhero action they could complete in the coming weeks and months. Participants described their plan in a written Action Commitment, which they turned in at the end of the day. We’re proud that seventy-four percent of our attendees made these Commitments. We plan to feature the progress of at least one of these superhero actions in each issue of this newsletter.
This article was written for the August 2011 newsletter by Denise Carl, Coordinator of ASUI Student Engagement and Leadership Programs at the University of Idaho
As I began my walk home on Friday, April 8, 2011 I noticed there were several students walking on campus in unusual attire: students were wearing overalls and flannel shirts, carrying dirty dolls, and had their front teeth blacked out. Normally I wouldn’t be able to tell you the specific date, but it was a Vandal Friday, a day when prospective students are visiting the University of Idaho campus. After seeing at least a dozen people dressed up, I asked one student about his outfit. He replied he was dressed up for the “white trash party.” I commented that it seemed early to be dressed up—it was just about 5:00 pm—only to discover the party had been going on since 9:00am. I recalled my walk to the Student Union that morning, when I noticed an unusual amount of activity at one of the Greek houses nearby. I began piecing the puzzle together in my mind, realizing what I had seen was the “white trash party,” and that it had been going on all day for everyone on campus to see. The next day I attended the Finding the Center Human Rights Conference.
At the conference I heard from several people who have been change agents in their own lives, in turn impacting the lives of others. At the end of an inspiring day we were all asked to continue our commitment to fight injustice and create more inclusive and welcoming environments. I couldn’t help but think about the party I had seen just the day before. Did our students at the University of Idaho understand their actions were creating an unwelcoming environment? Did they know what it meant to live their lives with congruence? I decided to commit to holding an event called a Campus Conversation, which would serve as a forum for students and faculty about the effect of themed parties on campus life.
I knew that holding the Conversation in a timely manner would be an important factor in its success. That day I reached out to my supervisor, Jennifer Fountain, Director of Student Engagement, and Heather Gasser, Director of the Women’s Center, to seek out allies and professional support for hosting the Conversation. The commitment of university professionals to challenge and support their students was evident in the extensive amount of dialogue that occurred throughout the weekend and into the next week.
Several additional voices were brought into the fold during the planning stages, including Matt Kurz, Director of Greek Life; Mark Edwards, Assistant to the President for Diversity, Equity & Community; and ASUI Leadership Interns Nathan Essex, Matthew Montgomery and Samantha Storms. Each person brought a different perspective to the idea of the Campus Conversation and helped me to understand how different entities on campus viewed the “white trash party.” A priority throughout the planning process was to avoid focus on the host of the party or the specifics of the party. Instead the Conversation would focus on the intent versus the impact of themed functions.
The Campus Conversation was held the following Thursday, April 14th in a meeting room in the Commons building on campus. A Facebook event was created utilizing the Idaho LEADS page, Heather Gasser created a poster for the Commons and the Student Union, Matt Kurz sent out notices to all the Greek Living Groups, and an email was sent to students affiliated with ASUI as well as the Women’s Center. About thirty students and faculty attended the event.
During the Conversation students and staff were given the opportunity to address the following questions: what is the intent versus the impact of themed functions? What does it mean to live one’s life with congruence? What impact can themed functions have on a college campus? Is it okay to be politically incorrect? During the Conversation I utilized Poll Everywhere—a cell phone application for taking polls in real time using text messaging—to gauge student opinion. This tool was great because it allowed for anonymous responses. After each polling session I opened the room for discussion, and after the forum was over I announced I would be happy to have further communication with anyone who might want to meet one-on-one. The forum successfully sparked discussion and some debate. The execution wasn’t perfect, but I think it helped some students begin to think about how others perceive their actions. It also helped university staff to identify a need in programming on campus. Throughout the upcoming academic year we will continue to host these Conversations.
Future Campus Conversations will be organized in collaboration with the Women’s Center, the Center for Volunteerism and Social Action, and ASUI Leadership programs. Heather Gasser, Bruce Mann, and I are in the early stages of discussing the format and outcomes for these Conversations, which we tentatively plan to host once or twice a month. We hope to strike a balance between addressing issues as they arise on campus, and mapping out debate around predetermined topics that promise to provide opportunities for civil discourse. At our first Conversation I was pleasantly surprised by the number of staff members who were present and willing to share their thoughts. I welcome their continued support. Please contact me if there are topics you would like to see featured, if you would like to help facilitate a Campus Conversation, or if there are upcoming campus events that may be controversial (email firstname.lastname@example.org). My goal in planning these Conversations is to help foster an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of the University of Idaho community.
You can read more about Denise Carl’s Campus Conversation in an article by Shaina Craner on the University of Idaho Women’s Center blog.