How do you create an inclusive campus? How do you talk about diversity? How do you build awareness and help students see similarities rather than differences?
These are just some of the questions the Dialogue on Diversity, Race, and Conflict program was designed to address.
Created in 2008 by the Diversity & Equity Office, a department of the Division of Student Affairs & Enrollment Management, Dialogue on Diversity provides a space for faculty and students to talk about race and diversity in order to promote a better understanding of and relationships among the diverse students on campus.
The response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive — and not just here on campus. It has put NIU in the national spotlight.
In 2008 and 2009, Minority Access, Inc., a non-profit organization that works to improve the recruitment, retention and enhancement of minorities, honored NIU with its Diversity Award in recognition of its commitment to diversity. NIU also received the NASPA Diversity Award for innovative and creative programming in 2009.
Dialogue on Diversity is now in its third year, and NIU is still being recognized.
This September, James Brunson, assistant vice president for Diversity & Equity, attended Minority Access’s 11th National Role Models Conference in Las Vegas, where he accepted NIU’s third Diversity Award.
“It’s a feather in our cap to be recognized for what we do,” Brunson said. “The administration has been very supportive and has put their money where their mouth is to promote diversity. It requires a lot work — not just financially, but people taking the time to do the training and the teaching.”
During the first two years, the target audience was student organizations, and more than 1,400 students attended the sessions. This year, the goal is to reach even more students by incorporating the sessions into the UNIV 101 and 201 classes. Participation is voluntary, and 24 instructors have invited the trained Dialogue on Diversity facilitators — one faculty member and one student — to their classrooms.
Before beginning the session, the facilitators establish “rules” and remind students that it is a safe environment where everyone’s views are valid. There are no right or wrong answers, and what people say stays in the room.
“Everyone who participates is right about where they are because it’s about who you are,” Brunson said. “It’s OK to talk about things, but it’s important to know not everyone will agree. That’s one of the goals: to find out where the similarities are and where the differences are and why they should matter.”
One reason freshman Leonard Hood II chose NIU was because of its diversity: “I love it here. I feel I can talk to anyone.”
Hood recently participated in his first Dialogue on Diversity in his UNIV 101 class. “I’m glad I had it as a freshman. It was interesting to see where other people were coming from,” he said. “I’m getting better about diversity and relating to different people. I actually prefer to be in diverse groups now because if you’re with people who are like you all the time you don’t learn anything new.”
Some students have participated in the program several times.
Senior Drew Herrmann has attended five sessions, mainly as a member of student organizations. Five sessions seems like a lot, but he explained that each time he attends he learns a lot about people. He has also learned how to talk about diversity.
“When I see something that I feel is discriminatory or short-sighted, I usually try to engage the person in a conversation about those beliefs right then and there. I don’t always do this, but I try my best,” he said. “I think that is really what Dialogue on Diversity is about though — starting the initial conversation so people feel more comfortable starting their own conversations with their friends, family, and even acquaintances. The more open people are about discussing diversity, the less radical people’s views will be.”
Dialogue on Diversity is here to stay, Brunson said. “The long-term goal for the program,” he said, “is to integrate it into everything we do and make it part of every student’s first-year experience.”
It makes sense. “Diversity is a journey,” he said, “not a destination.”