More than just food for thought: Student-only dialogue fosters discussion of diversity issues

Posted by Julia Leef

There have recently been a series of incidents on campus that have caused great controversy and bias. Both the administration and students alike have addressed these controversial events in the form of letters and open-forum discussions. Students are speaking out with regard to the "Food for Thought" posters that have provoked controversy on campus.

This past Wednesday night, from 8-10 p.m. in the second floor of Murray-Aikins Dining Hall, SGA hosted "The Talk We Need to Have," a completely student-run and participant based meeting that addressed the "Food for Thought" posters and the issues associated with them. SGA also invited several peer mediators and IGR facilitators to run the meeting.

"SGA took the initiative to respond back," said Emmily De los Santos '11, one of the mediators at the event. "‘Hey, Food for Thought, you got our attention, let's talk about this. Let's come together, next semester, we're going to have a meeting.' And that was what sparked this dialogue."

According to SGA President Alex Stark '11, the posters were the starting point for the questions that have been brought up around campus. "SGA members felt that we should provide a venue for these conversations," she said. "We wanted to interact with people who felt this way, who felt that these conversations needed to happen, and to use our resources to . . . encourage this conversation between many groups of people and the entire community."

The meeting addressed a series of "Food for Thought" posters that were anonymously put up around campus last semester. The posters asked questions about race, class, gender and other social identities. These posters have been vandalized with negative comments and many have been ripped down.

"While those posters were maybe the initial motivation," said Suzanne Finkel '11, an IGR facilitator, "I think it's been clear to a lot of us . . . that there are growing tensions on campus, that there is more than that, there's a lack of dialogue and communication."

"I feel like the beautiful thing is that the posters brought to light something that had been under the radar for so long," said Ismatu Alison-Konteh '11, another facilitator, "and not just something that's been under the radar, but something that's been bubbling under the surface of the campus for a long time."

More than 130 students of all ethnicities attended the forum, filling the room so that even when extra chairs were brought in, many still had to sit on the floor or stand.

The mediators and facilitators emphasized that the purpose of the meeting was to provide a neutral environment in which students could feel free to voice their opinions on the posters and the controversy the posters caused. A list of ground rules was established and the group was divided into four smaller groups that talked amongst themselves before rejoining for one last final discussion.

Generally, students seemed to approve of the posters and the questions that they raised. Students supported the fact that these posters challenged people to think about real issues and inspired further discussion.

"If those posters were never created," asked Lavere Foster '11, a mediator of the event, "would we have had this dialogue here tonight? And it's a shame that something really big has to go down in order for someone to actually step up and take charge. Why can't we step up for all these things that actually happen and try to prevent them in the first place?"

"I feel like being here really made me feel and learn a lot," said Chris Lord '12, a mediator. "I got a lot out of this, personally . . . when you're in this environment you really feel it. And when you feel it, that's what it's about."

Many students spoke about the need for even more people to become involved and express their own viewpoints outside of scheduled events. Even after the meeting was dismissed, students lingered to continue their discussions about these important issues.

"I honestly think if we continue to make provocative statements," said Hugh James O'Kelly '13, "such as the ones that were made with the ‘Food for Thought' posters, that can be one of the most direct and effective ways that this can happen."

"I think the most important take-away point of this dialogue is that it's important for everyone's narratives to be heard," Frank Cabrera '11 said. "And my philosophy is that being silent is just as bad as committing any hate crime, because silence just reinforces the fact that what is happening is okay."

Some other students, however, felt that there was a limit to the effectiveness of the meeting.

"I think that this dialogue went very well," Erin Richard '14, said. "But, at the same time, I feel that more people need to care more about these issues and then come to these events.

"I feel that the dialogue was effective, but, as effective as it was, we have a long way to go," said Xavier Hatten, class of 2014 president. "The people who already care were the ones that showed up."

Even so, everyone seemed to enjoy that students had taken the initiative to begin this talk and to support the talks to come.

"The thing for me that's important is that, while we may be students here for four years, we aren't just passing through," said Nick Hara '11, a mediator and co-president of the Conflict Resolution club. "To open up the dialogue the way that we have is something that is, like we've all said, a foot in the door, but, ultimately, we need to be talking about how we fit into this entire community."

"As students, we have more control and power than we think we do," said Natalie Alvarez '11, a mediator. "As students, we need to be taking control of our education, our community and of ourselves, and turn this around into a place where we feel comfortable and safe and enjoy it."

"For me, I love Skidmore, I think it's a great place," said Rachel Sotak '12, a mediator. "I think that everyone is privileged to be at Skidmore and everyone should get the opportunity to enjoy it and to get the full experience out of it."

As all of the mediators and facilitators emphasized, this meeting is not the end, but rather the beginning. The dialogue will continue with "Project Unity," a program that will meet on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. in the ICC at Case Center.

"It's meant to be a place where there really is no hierarchy," Hatch said. "It's a place to learn from each other and to feel for each other."

In addition to "Project Unity," the mediators, facilitators and Stark encourage students to come and talk to them about their opinions concerning the issues on campus. They hope that people will feel comfortable enough to do so. One of the "Food for Thought" posters challenged students to establish constructive dialogues about these events and it seems that this challenge has been met.

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