By Sophie Foster
The most recent forum in a series designed to better address diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus took place on Thursday, Oct. 20 at 2:30 p.m. in Hynson Lounge.
The forum, hosted by Associate Provost of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Senior Equity Officer, and Associate Professor of English Dr. Alisha Knight, was centered around the Student Affairs Department. It was attended primarily by the staff of Student Affairs and the staff of other student-centered departments, including Public Safety and Residential Life, both in person and on Zoom.
Dr. Knight opened the dialogue with the reminder to all present that “diversity, broadly defined, needs to be a part of our mission” at Washington College.
Thinking categorically, Dr. Knight broke diversity efforts at the College down into three sections of responsibility: the high level, which constitutes broadscale work done by the College to the top administrative degree; the centralized level, which references efforts like the forums themselves, designed to bridge gaps between administration and the campus community; and the decentralized level, which is composed of individualized departmental approaches. Each of these endeavors is equally critical to building an equitable, inclusive environment at WC, according to Dr. Knight.
In collaboration with Vice President for Planning and Policy and Chief of Staff Vic Sensenig, Dr. Knight used this breakdown of approaches to open a line of conversation surrounding what, exactly, needs to be done — in this case, on the Student Affairs level — to address diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus.
“I see this as an opportunity to get started on work that we know would be a recommended part of the strategic diversity process,” Sensenig said.
Moving into conversation with the forum’s attendees, Dr. Knight raised the question she always begins each forum with: where has the College made progress in this thematic area?
Areas of noted improvement from the collective included the increased push to offer support and resources to students of differing economic backgrounds, a positively shifting relationship between students and Public Safety, and the implementation of the Bias Education Response Team and bias reports.
Assistant Dean for Student Engagement and Success Tricia Biles was among the attendees who felt the BERT was a crucial feature on our campus in Student Affairs.
“The BERT has really come together this year,” Biles said. “They have been making positive strides with the Support and Report Campaign, collaboration with campus partners like Public Safety, the Student Government Association, and the Honor Board.”
Director of Student Intercultural Affairs Stephanie Gilmore expanded on this assessment, looking to plans for the near future as indicators of growth.
“WC does a great job of letting students know that there is a place for everyone on our campus,” Gilmore said. “I’m really looking forward to the Human Library Project. I think it is an outstanding effort to display the inclusivity on campus.”
According to Gilmore, the DEI initiatives are a great launching pad, and leave room to further welcome and include students in the enduring conversation about inclusivity on campus.
Areas in which progress could be made were also highlighted and discussed at the forum. The most notable suggestions included the need for heightened accessibility, working to make the dining hall a safer place for students with meal restrictions, improved communication about what work Student Affairs does for students, ensuring that campus functioning is more student-centered, and increased inclusivity in terms of welcoming students of all gender identities.
The point was also raised that there’s a need for a shift away from cliques, which could potentially be approached by bolstering interdisciplinary communication.
“I think we can do more to develop whole-school spirit, help students broaden their social circles, and support student leaders across departments [and] co-curriculars,” Biles said, adding that she also believes expansion efforts could be made in areas of restorative practice and mediated conflict resolution throughout the community.
The notion that students sometimes feel unsafe on campus was also brought to the table, specifically at nighttime when certain areas have very low outdoor lighting, if any. This, according to the conversation that transpired, proves especially problematic at the Washington Avenue crosswalk, where many bias incidents persist both at night and during the day. This issue is accentuated by the fact that all students visiting Intercultural Affairs, housed in Minta Martin Hall, need to cross Washington Avenue to access their safe space.
Additionally, the topic was broached that, despite the aforementioned progress, there is still a prominent need for improvement in the relationship between Public Safety and students, particularly considering the perceived mistrust between Public Safety and campus affinity groups as a result of previous incidents.
According to Gilmore, “we need to provide intensive training on inclusivity for all faculty, staff, and students. Panel discussions that have representatives from various groups in a town hall setting would also be helpful. Periodic workshops for credit for both students, faculty, and staff may be an incentive for more participation from all campus groups.”
The strategic diversity plan, Pursuing Inclusive Excellence: a Five-Year Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, will be revised and improved based partially on these ongoing conversations campuswide. A working draft of the plan is accessible to the entire WC community through Sensenig’s OneDrive.
The next forum in this series is set to take place on Thursday, Nov. 3 to discuss DEI in SGA. All students and members of the campus community are invited to join, and attendees can share their reflections, questions, comments, and concerns via the Qualtrics response survey at https://washcoll.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_ewJSxTRwIUejuuO.