May 2015 Archways

Bryn Mawr Comes Together

Community Day_1By Matt Gray

As many as 1,000 students, faculty, and staff members turned out for the first-ever Community Day of Learning on March 18.

Titled “Race and Ethnicity at Bryn Mawr and Beyond,” the day featured performances, panel discussions, interactive workshops, and lectures designed to elevate and promote the benefits and challenges of living and learning in a diverse community.

The morning sessions began with the majority of those taking part in the day gathering in the Bern Schwartz gymnasium. Upon arrival, each person was given a name tag with a particular color and asked to sit at one of the many round tables with a correspondingly colored table cloth.

“I walked down there with a couple of my co-workers, and normally we would have all just sat together, but this sort of forced everyone to get to know new people,” says Michael Williams, a member of the College’s housekeeping staff. “It was a great idea.”

At the morning all-campus gathering, President Kim Cassidy, Stephanie Nixon of the Pensby Center, and Tiffany Shumate from Admissions addressed the audience, outlined the day ahead, talked about the goals and guidelines for the day, and led the assemblage in an initial exercise in which they talked to each other about their personal experiences around race and ethnicity.

“For decades Bryn Mawr has prided itself on its diversity—largely among the student body—but the diversity we experience today cannot be taken for granted,” Cassidy told the crowd. “Bryn Mawr has its own history regarding exclusion based on race, ethnicity, and other identities—a legacy that leaves us far from perfect and one we must own in order to move forward. Further, simply being diverse doesn’t mean we experience the community equally or in the same ways—achieving a community in which every member feels valued and included is a goal that requires continual attention—and an important reason for today’s program.”

For the opening discussion, people at each table were asked to have conversations around a series of prompts, including “What did you learn growing up about people who look like you?” and “What did you learn growing up about people who look different than you?”

Williams, who is African-American, shared his table with a faculty member from France, an Asian-American student, a student from Turkey, and a Jewish-American staff member.

“I talked to them about what their perception is of a black guy with a beard, and we were able to have a real conversation and not feel uncomfortable because we were all trying to learn from each other,” says Williams.

Community Day_2After leaving Schwartz gymnasium, half the participants went to Goodhart Hall to see a performance by Theater Delta, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based interactive theater group whose work focuses primarily on the complexity of college campus communities. The other half attended one of the more than 40 workshops and lectures being held throughout campus. After breaking for lunch, the groups flipped schedules so that all participants had an opportunity to take in both the performance and another event.

Stephanie Montalvan ’18, a Posse Scholar from Houston, went to a session led by Professor of History Sharon Ullman on the history of the Confederate flag. Ullman has given similar talks on campus since the September incident in which two students hung the flag in a residence hall.

“It was great because we didn’t just talk about the history of the flag. We also talked about the emotions involved in the display of the flag and the symbolism of the flag,” says Montalvan. “There was even someone in the room from Georgia, and he was able to share his own experience of growing up in a Southern state and how he saw the Confederate flag all the time as a child.”

Rachel Weissler ’16, from Los Angeles, is a Mellon Mays Fellow who is already considering going on to get a Ph.D. She decided to attend a session that touched on negotiating the predominantly white world of academia as a faculty member of color.

“I got a lot out of the discussion,” says Weissler. “I’m hoping the College will be able to do this again because there are students doing study abroad or who had classes on other campuses that couldn’t make it.”

Community Day_3Alizeh Amir ’16, from Karachi, Pakistan, was on the Islamaphobia: Faith and Race panel. “I didn’t expect to see so many students and such a diverse group at the panel,” says Amir, the co-president of the Muslim Student Association. “The hour went by really quickly because we had such a good conversation and touched on so many topics. I’m hoping this opens the door for more conversations.”

Class of 2016 members Rachel Ofili from California, Coco Wang from China, and Chanel Williams from the Bahamas, all praised the day as they left lunch at Erdman Hall together.

“I love that we’re having this day and doing this,” says Ofili. “The session I went to was all about hearing people’s stories and getting to know them as individuals. Every day we see people on campus and make assumptions, but we really have no idea who they are or what they’re about.”

Wang participated in the session Ofili attended, which was called Renegotiating Ethnic, Racial, and Cultural Identity in College. She also attended a session called Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity from Other Nations.

“I didn’t grow up thinking about concepts of race or diversity, but like Rachel said, it’s about being an active listener and getting to know people as individuals,” says Wang.

Faculty members taking part in the day were also enthusiastic about the results. “I had the opportunity to talk for the first time with people I rarely if ever see on campus as well as with people I know but with whom I have not had such focused discussions before,” says Professor of Education Alison Cook-Sather. “Most exciting to me, though, is that we listened to our students. They called for this day, they helped facilitate both sessions of which I was a part, and they spoke up clearly and wisely in every conversation. It is wholly fitting that students were among our teachers on our first Community Day of Learning.”

The day ended with all attendees coming together again in the gymnasium, where they heard closing remarks from University of Pennsylvania Pastor Charles Howard and President Cassidy. “This should be a day of pride for Bryn Mawr,” said Howard. “The privilege of the majority is to not care. But you all cared.”

“We still have a long way to go, but today was an important first step and we took it together,” said Cassidy.