Messy. Beautiful. Uncomfortable. Enlightening. Worth it.

Last night was our Deliberative Dialogue exercise.  About 325 students, faculty, and staff participated.  We began in Wait Chapel with remarks from President Hatch about the importance of having face to face conversations about difficult issues, and how if some of our Wake Foresters feel on the margins or marginalized, do we as a community have a responsibility to think about that and find solutions?

We watched a video with dramatic readings from students about their Wake Forest experiences (no names or faces or other attribution to who said what).  Students had been asked “When does Wake Forest feel like home?” – and responses ranged from the very positive, where people said they felt like this was their place, the best place, etc.

Other students, though, had different thoughts – that sometimes it doesn’t feel like home, or that they don’t belong – for whatever reason.  Students were asked “When does Wake Forest not feel like home?’  Some cited discomfort at not feeling like they could conform to the majority opinions, styles of dress, or behaviors (“I can’t afford to go out to eat with all the other girls”), or because of their race.

For me personally, the most poignant response was from a young man who said (and I am paraphrasing) ‘When I am with my fraternity brothers and they are saying something sexist/disparaging about a girl and I tell them to stop, I end up being alienated from them.  But if they do that and I say nothing, I hate myself as much as I hate them.’

Wow.

Following that film, Vice President Penny Rue spoke to the group, and then we all adjorned to individual discussion groups of about 18-20 people each, plus a moderator to help direct the conversation, as well as a recorder.

There is a certain amount of trust and confidentiality that has to be present within these discussion groups (as one of my fellow moderators said, ‘It’s sort of like an AA meeting; you don’t disclose what people say there’), so I won’t go chapter and verse about my particular group’s conversation.  However, having talked to some other moderators, I can make some observations about the evening.

Each group talked about three potential perspectives on how we might address ways to be a more inclusive and diverse community.  One perspective was that we might focus efforts on recruiting and retaining more diverse faculty, staff, students, and even volunteer leaders.  In other words, if we have greater diversity (racial, socioeconomic, gender identity, religion, etc.) we will have a greater opportunity to understand and celebrate difference and be a more cohesive community.

A second perspective is that we might focus efforts on reviewing or revising policies and practices that might promote inequity (things like policing policies at parties – which has already been revised, actually -,  how lounge spaces are allocated, or whether we need to revisit admissions policies so we go back to being ‘need blind’ – or admitting all qualified applicants regardless of parental income).

The third perspective to consider was that community change has to begin in the classroom, at the heart of the academic mission of the school – to include classes and co-curricular opportunities to discuss the thorny issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, difference – and if we better prepare our students to wrestle with these issues, community will follow.

There are many tough parts of these dialogues.  Each discussion group is intentionally formed so that there is representation from lots of different areas of campus.  One student’s negative experience with party management might be something another participant has never experienced.  Or the perspective a faculty or staff member expresses about the Greek system might be hard for a current Greek student to hear.  The intent is not to cause tension, but to be sure we can hear from as many areas of our community as possible.

Across all groups, I am sure, people shared personal experiences that ran a broad spectrum from positive to negative, to being aware of issues to having no idea they existed.  Some people might be aware of ‘lightning rod’ major issues, while others see or experience ‘microagressions’ that you might miss unless you are part of the group those are directed toward.  I’d be willing to bet there were discussions of privilege, of lack of understanding about other people’s struggles, whatever those may be.

Those things are messy.  Hard to hear.  Uncomfortable to talk about.  Potentially dividing and divisive.  And if you just stopped there, it would be a dreadful exercise.

But – and here is where it gets beautiful – Deliberative Dialogue is civil discourse at its best.  Instead of people just voting on which of the three perspectives might be the best for Wake Forest, every group had to weigh pros and cons of each.  Talk about the compromises and trade offs that could come if we did X as an institution over Y.  For example, if a group said that one way to optimize our community is to ensure a wider socioeconomic section of students is recruited, the tradeoff is that it will require a lot more money in financial aid or scholarships.  Do you siphon that money away from somewhere else? If so, where?  Resources are finite.

In each of the groups, we were asked to see if we could come to common ground anywhere – whether that was agreeing that one of the three perspectives might make the most sense for Wake Forest, or if some of each perspective was viable and valuable.  Common ground for some might have been that the group could agree that we want a better, stronger community and it was worth working for.  In my group, we had many items of common ground that I was really proud to hear.

At the end of the discussion, each group had the opportunity to look at the common ground items and recommend action items – both what we think could/should happen institutionally, and also what each of us pledge to do individually to make a difference in our community.  I suspect/hope that many folks left the dialogue with an idea that they are going to take some new or different actions now that will help the greater good.

And that is where it is enlightening and worth it.  People’s minds can be opened or changed by chewing on thorny issues.  People can pledge to be different in ways that matter.  I know I have my own set of personal action items.  As I told my group, my Wake Forest is broader now that I have heard some of their voices and perspectives.

Now the million dollar question: where do we go from here?  All the group moderators/recorders are charged with writing up discussion notes from their group.  Those get funneled to the exercise organizers, who will analyze the results and look for common themes or calls to action.  And then all the people who participated in the discussions will be invited to join an Action Team if they want to continue to work toward an identified goal or outcome.  The conversation can continue and people can get their hands dirty and do more if they wish to.

It seems especially fitting to me that our Deliberative Dialogue took place the night before election day.  Whether it is through discussion groups or your ballot at the polls, we have the ability and freedom to make our voices heard and to effect positive change where we live.   In my mind, being part of the process is always better than sitting on the sidelines.

Many thanks to everyone who came out lastnight, to the organizers, moderators, and recorders.  Can’t wait to see what we can do working together for the best Wake Forest.

 

 

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