Building Community Through ConverActions

by Marie Condron

converactionsFor Shanisha Coram ’17, the essence of the new ConverActions series at Scripps is best summed up by the story of the crooked room, as described by Melissa Harris-Perry at her September 8 talk on the Scripps Presents stage and in her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

In the provocative social science study, subjects were placed in a crooked room on crooked chairs and asked to align themselves vertically. Some people could be at a strong tilt and insist they were straight, due to their alignment with the visual information around them, while others showed an ability to align themselves vertically regardless of their surroundings. Harris-Perry compared the findings to how black women, confronted with persistent cultural stereotypes about their humanity, face pressures to warp and bend themselves to align with perceptions.

“I think it’s a perfect symbol of how we come from different perspectives, how even if we’re all in the same room, we can each have a different way of viewing the world around us,” says Coram. “So how do you communicate with others who may be seeing the room as upright when it’s crooked? Just because someone else’s perspective is different, we should not invalidate it, but try to understand it, and turn that understanding into action.”

Launched this fall as a joint project of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access (IDEA) initiative aimed at advancing a culture of inclusion on campus, and Scripps Presents, the College’s public events program, the ConverActions series consisted of four noontime, moderated roundtable discussions oriented around selected event speakers, designed to provide a space for students, staff, and faculty to talk about some of the challenging topics addressed—such as race, class, and cultural appropriation—in a smaller group setting focused on identifying actions and next steps to advance a cause. Open to the entire Scripps community, these events offered a forum to address issues raised by prominent thought leaders, hear perspectives from a panel of faculty, students, and staff, and participate in a conversation about the implications and opportunities for change—on and off campus. The series was also a natural extension of the new Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities theme of “community” and served as a way to bring that concept to life.

“ConverActions comes out of the IDEA initiative, which began when we saw a need to build greater capacity on campus to genuinely listen to each other, deeply enough that we could be changed by what we were hearing,” says Denise Nelson Nash ’76, vice president and secretary of the Board of Trustees and convener of the initiative. “With the student activism that took place last year here at Scripps and across the country, and knowing that the presidential election was on the horizon, we looked for ways to have conversations about the campus climate and the national climate on race, community, and change.”

“For me, I think what was really heartwarming, especially in light of the recent presidential election, is there are a lot of people who care about the well-being of others even when they don’t personally understand or relate to their experience,” says Yuka Ogino, assistant director of Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment (SCORE), a campus department that supports student groups advancing social justice. Ogino joined Coram as a moderator of the ConverAction following the Harris-Perry event, where a group of 15 students, staff, and faculty discussed how they feel about racism in their lives and what they do to combat it.

“I think it’s very rare that students, staff, and faculty have an informal space to talk about their personal experiences without the staff or faculty hat on. It is a unique space. We were able to reflect with one another, and deeper connections were made because the issues were so personal.”

“It was the week after the presidential election, and so many of us on campus were in sort of a tailspin,” said Corrina Lesser, director of public events at Scripps, on the prescient moment of the final ConverAction, featuring Norman Ornstein of American Enterprise Institute. “People in this community are very open to dissent; it’s less about being perturbed at somebody who has a different viewpoint and more about figuring out ways to engage with that person. Since Norm is a conservative academic who has worked in Washington for more than 30 years, the program was a unique opportunity to fulfill our goals to deepen engagement with the ideas generated by our speakers and further explore those issues as a community.”

Lesser recounts how at the post-election ConverAction, the faculty moderator, Visiting Professor of Art Jonas Becker, pushed everyone in the room, if they were willing, to share something they had done since the election. “One of the students volunteered that she had been talking and reading with Syrian refugees in a community near Claremont. It was exciting to hear students reflecting on what actions they had been taking.”

On September 22, the hip-hop journalist and historian Jeff Chang, author of We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, spoke about a new creative space for activism.

“I was really inspired by Jeff Chang’s talk, about how hip-hop movements are really transformative acts of resistance to the overwhelming political environment we see today, with police brutality and hate crimes coming up all over the country. It’s a positive act of resistance—a creative form of activism,” says Phoebe Shen ’17, a student facilitator for the Jeff Chang ConverAction. “It was really special for me as an Asian American student to see an Asian American activist taking such a position on these issues. It was a lot more relatable and meaningful that way.”

“What I remember most is our discussion about the many ways that we as undergraduate students can participate in the movement toward social and racial justice,” Shen adds. “For example, Claremont is on Tongva land, and we have strong community partnerships with leaders of local indigenous communities. We have many opportunities to build positive relationships with the members of these communities through mentorship programs like IndigeNATION, which does outreach through college prep and college application workshops.”

No te vayas—we’re not going anywhere,” said Maria Hinojosa, anchor and executive producer of NPR’s Latino USA, in her talk, which centered around how to create spaces for dialogue with those who have different perspectives. For Jackie Legazcue, a staff moderator for the ConverAction that followed, Hinojosa teed up a theme that’s even more significant after the presidential election: Since this is our America, and we’re in it together, how do we show up as a diverse community, have productive dialogues, and learn to coexist?”

“What resonated with me, especially at this time, is: How do we find ways to create a space for peace instead of promoting hatred?” said Legazcue. “We also talked about taking action in solidarity when we see injustice or discrimination and different ways we can be active community members.”

At the Change Fair on campus in February, representatives from a variety of social justice, political action, and community action organizations will be available to help students identify ways to get involved—from volunteering to sharing information with their networks, making contributions, or just informing themselves and looking for new ways to integrate social-change efforts into campus activities.

Lesser also hints that the lineup of the spring Scripps Presents series will provide more opportunity for these kinds of sessions to occur in response to race, gender, and transgender issues.

“We are an academic community, so ideas are paramount, as well as knowing the context and history of how issues and ideas have evolved over time,” says Lesser. “We are providing a space for people to get out of the textbook and into the world. It’s exciting to think that there was a sense that there was this need at Scripps, and then we started exploring what that looks like, and we now have a foundation that can help us as we encounter this larger national conversation that’s really challenging to people.”

 

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