INCLUSIVE ENVIRONMENTS

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications

More than 250 faculty and staff at the U met Monday, Oct. 2, with two national experts to learn about how student learning is promoted through creation of inclusive environments.

Ruby Mendenhall and Stacy Harwood of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, with Ruth V. Watkins, senior vice president for academic affairs.

The forum, led by professors Ruby Mendenhall and Stacy Harwood of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was hosted by the offices of the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Undergraduate Studies and Equity and Diversity. In addition to the morning session, Harwood and Mendenhall met in the afternoon with faculty and staff of color.

Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for academic affairs, told the attendees that part of effective learning is feeling you belong and your voice is heard.

“This is an opportunity to think about all of our roles in addressing issues as they arise to ensure our campus is a respectful, safe environment,” Watkins said.

Mendenhall is an associate professor of sociology, African American studies, urban and regional planning and social work, while Harwood is an associate professor of urban and regional planning. Their address focused on racial microaggression — what it is, how to recognize it and what to do when it occurs.

Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.

On historically white campuses, racial microaggressions can contribute to students of color feeling alienated, isolated and misunderstood by faculty who don’t realize or grasp what they are experiencing, Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall said staff and faculty also can — again, intentionally or unintentionally — contribute to the making students of color feel unwelcome on college campuses by how they handle grading, academic guidance, access to academic opportunities, letters of recommendation and mentorships.

Mendenhall and Harwood led the audience through interaction scenarios and a discussion of the geography of the U campus, looking at spaces that may be viewed as unwelcoming as well as those likely to be viewed as inclusive and safer for students of color.

The group, for example, identified the Park Building as one of the examples of a “fortified space” — a place that is predominately white and where students of color might feel unwelcome. Classrooms were included in the “contradictory” spaces, where “racial dominance is more hidden, but persistent” and students of color may be “treated like second-class citizens.” The Women’s Resource Center, Office of Inclusive Excellence and the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs were among the “counter spaces,” described as places where students of color feel safe, supported and welcome.

Based on comments made during the session, many faculty and staff want more training and a continued dialogue on dealing with acts of disrespect, incivility and aggression in the classroom and on campus.

“This conversation must continue — not just continue, but intensify, and our visitors have helped us dramatically,” said Kathryn Bond Stockton, associate vice president for Equity and Diversity.