REaChing for the stars
Empowering English Language Learners
Summary of the 2017 Diversity Conference on March 27, 2017 at the Hilton Hotel in Burlington, VT
By Sarah Forbes
Earlier this week, I attended my first Diversity Conference, hosted by the Greater Burlington Area Multicultural Resource Center at the Hilton in downtown Burlington. It was an inspiring, reflective, and emotional day. The uncertainty of the current political climate was palpable, but so were hope, honesty and love. The morning began with a presentation by Dr. Jonathan Jansen of South Africa. Dr. Jansen, a Stanford graduate who grew up under the Apartheid, is well known for his work with the University of the Free State, setting the bar for integration and anti-discrimination practices. His connection to Vermont stems from a program in which he sent South African students around the U.S. to colleges and universities where they mingled with peers to better understand and improve race relations. His presentation centered around his work with interracial relationships, both friendships and romantic relationships, and how people who are part of such relationships challenge social mores that continue to reinforce social and systemic segregation.
Growing up in a state that is predominantly white, this struck a chord with me. I think we often hold up Burlington and Winooski as examples of Vermont’s diversity, however, how integrated are we really? We may live on the same city blocks and attend the same schools, but there are still clear boundaries between people based on race, culture, religion, and economic status that hinder true social integration. Jansen referenced two influential cases that challenged states’ laws against interracial marriages, first, the U.S. Loving vs. Virginia case (1967), and the second the Blacking case in South Africa. He argued that while the laws may have changed in favor of interracial marriage, the social norms have not. It is the work of all who believe in equality to create pathways to understanding and integration. Jansen stated, “Social mores now do the work that legislation no longer needs to do.” With this in mind, he has followed several interracial couples and friends in South Africa as they navigate a reality where they continue to encounter discriminatory interactions with family and community members. His driving question: “Why is it so difficult to love across the colour line?”
Following the keynote, there was a panel on Diversity in Education, which included Moise St. Louis, Saint Michael’s College Associate Dean of Students and Director of Center for Multicultural Affairs & Services, Dr. Lacretia Flash, Office of Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at UVM, Miguel Fernandez, Chief Diversity Officer at Middlebury College, author and entrepreneur Wally Amos, “Famous Amos”, and Ame Lambert, the Chief Diversity Officer at Champlain College. Each was eloquently spoken and had powerful messages to deliver. Mr. St. Louis urged the audience to consider our educational future, asking what sort of educational institutions we hope for and how we can shape them so that our children are better than us at breaking down racial prejudices. Dr. Lacretia Flash read her essay “The Gift of Troubled Times,” written for the Peace and Justice Center, and cited the United State’s downgraded status on the Democracy Index from “full democracy” to “flawed democracy” as an indicator of our troubled times. She theorized that our challenge stems from a disconnect between our national values and ideals, arguing that our values are defined by individuality, competition, and success tied to winning (economically or otherwise), whereas our ideals, which we often hold up as representative of our democracy, are justice, equality and community.
Dr. Miguel Fernandez of Middlebury College shared his experience of the recent events of Middlebury College student protests of the controversial author of the The Bell Curve and Losing Ground, Charles Murray, who was invited to speak at the school. The event was all over the news and sparked intense debate about whether free speech and students’ need to engage with opposing viewpoints trump protection of minority students from the antiquated and unscientific white nationalist voice of Murray. Later, another participant of the conference revisited this question, wondering how to reconcile a need for dialogue between disagreeing parties with her support of the student protest, and Mr. St. Louis made a convincing argument against the college’s invitation to Charles Murray. He asserted, “We can not have a dialogue, if my humanity is in question.” Murray’s views on inherent inequality among races and genders means that he’s stepped out of a productive conversation based in reality. As a respected institution of higher education, Middlebury has a responsibility to uphold high standards of research and truth, and while it can and should value and explore differing viewpoints, should they not all be held to that same high standard? St. Louis feels that Murray does not adhere to this high standard. The Southern Poverty Law Center says of Murray: “Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has become one of the most influential social scientists in America, using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.”
Wally Amos turned the tune of this conversation to a simple, yet profound message “Love just is…” He did not discuss the politics of the time, or the direction of higher education, but spoke his truth from the panel table, truly believing that if we can find it in our hearts to love one another, despite differences, then all else will sort itself out. When you really think about it, reflect on all the turmoil in the world, you can’t deny that love leads us to better places. He read aloud the children’s story I’ll Love You Forever by Robert Munsch with a somber tone, singing the song a mother sings to her child as he grows, rocking him gently, “back and forth, back and forth, back and forth,” “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long I’m living, my baby you’ll be.” I couldn’t help but expand my interpretations of this text, not as a mother, but as daughter, who is cherished and loved. How has that love shaped me, helped me feel secure and develop loving, respectful relationships? As the mother rocks her baby back and forth, I imagine what it’s like to confront opposition to your ideas, reflect on them, grow perspective and empathy for others. This back and forth of the baby is also the back and forth of each human being interacting with one another. This message of unconditional love is profound, I agree with Wally, and when we struggle and strive for it, it is reciprocated in innumerable ways. When the mother is too old to rock and sing to her child, he rocks his mother and sings to her instead; love received is love returned.
Ame Lambert’s messages aptly followed Amos’. While she changed the focus to brain research, the message was a similar one. It spoke to our need for belonging and love. She noted how our flight or fight reflex is active when we feel excluded or discriminated against, and this prevents us from accessing our “higher [thinking] brain”. Most people are most comfortable among people who are like them, who share the same values and beliefs, and this has deepened divides among us, made it difficult to reach one another on common ground. Division, or exclusion, however, can also cause us great pain, and pain “often manifests as anger, and all we can see is the anger.” How do we move beyond this anger towards a place of productivity? She concluded that higher education institutions need to be clear about what they are trying to create, and about what inclusion means to them if they’re to be successful at creating it.
The afternoon panel was titled “Refugee & Immigrant Crisis: A Vermont Response” and included community members active in refugee and immigrant work. There was a representative from the ACLU who responded to audience concerns and questions around the legality of President Trump’s executive orders, and the state’s efforts to protect residents, such as the application of sanctuary status. The representative applauded the great efforts of local organizations who in prior times tended to work in isolation, but have now banded together to protect the migrant farm workers in Vermont, and to respond to the growing fear and uncertainty among the refugee and immigrant population. Amila Merdzanovic, the Director of Vermont Refugee Resettlement program explained the process of resettlement to Vermont, and the impact of decreased resettlement in locally and nationally as a result of Trump’s order to lower the cap on refugee entry into the U.S by over half of that set by Obama. She spoke of the overwhelming support of Vermonters for refugees arriving here. Moderator Dr. Susan Comerford of UVM finished the panel with the suggestion that solidarity be “a new spirituality of our times.”
This much food for thought will undoubtedly bring me back next year.