Our department had a Climate and Diversity Retreat today. A few things on what that is, first:
As neoliberal restructuring continues to erode the academy, and particularly, as the academy (in the U.S.) continues to whiten at extraordinary rates through the erasure of loan and grant programs that target traditionally underrepresented minority populations, the need to address the growing exclusionary processes of the academy is becoming more and more urgent. Our department created a group that began as a Diversity Committee. The drive came, at the outset, to “grow diversity”, but as we spoke, we realized that “diversity” has begun to lose its purchase through its overuse.
What is diversity?
There is a danger in trying to “fix” diversity issues that it becomes a project of categorical program. How many people of color / women / underrepresented minorities / non-traditional students are there in a given department / school / university? The danger in this is that there is room to stop at the numbers and not really problematize the very structural issues that are creating the need to even begin to think in categories.
As a group, we decided that the important issue was first to understand the ways in which we can, inadvertently, be exclusionary. So what can be done about this? We (well, really, Suzanne Davies Withers, very much!) set about trying to find out if there was a program or a group on campus that could help us address this as a department. It turns out that there is not a model for this kind of deep self-reflexivity within the academy. So we set about trying to figure this out, with the incredible support of multiple people and departments across campus.
What struck me, in some of our conversations about the fear of trying to address these issues as a department was: If not us, then whom? Radical geography, particularly, has liked to think of itself as a kind of vanguard – a discipline that can and does tackle the very large and often uncomfortable issues of exclusion. So how do we bring that home?
We have worked for two months to really put together a meeting to begin to open this door. Today was our first all-department meeting.
We invited grad students and faculty to come together to being the discussion, and they came. We put people into groups randomly by having people choose a candy (from the faculty or the student bowl) that we laid out according to how many people responded. We ended up with 10 groups of 3-4 people.
The meeting was opened with a talk by Vicky Lawson introducing the very nature of the meeting, comments by Judy Howard, the Divisional Dean of Social Sciences at the UW, and the very talented mediation and introduction to the exercises with Theresa M. Ronquillo. We began with a short writing exercise: Reflect on an experience in your life where you were aware of whiteness or white privilege. How did it affect you?
After 10 minutes of writing, we were brought back to our small groups to discuss along the lines of three questions:
- How did you feel about this question?
- To the extent you feel comfortable, share your experiences or, at least, how it affected you.
- What might we learn from this conversation that we can bring to our practice as critical geographers and at the department (teaching, advising, and interactions with each other)?
We were given 30 minutes to really talk in our groups and then brought it back for 15 minutes to share the “a-ha” moment of the experience.
What was fascinating was the utter intensity with which everyone tackled the writing experience, the quiet politeness with which the small group discussions took form, and the smooth transition into academic and generalizable frames we ended. It was so wonderful to get to be part of a group project that really opened the door to some tough questions that we often discuss amongst ourselves into an open forum.
I have never been prouder of being part of the UW Geography program as i was today.
That sounds silly. I realize that. But a few things come to mind. #1: It is very easy, as academics, to spend our time investigating, analyzing and dissecting what happens “out there” – it is much more difficult to turn that magnifying glass on ourselves. I was utterly unprepared (even though i was highly prepared, through my involvement with the Committee) to address the issue of Whiteness in my life. I was surprised by my own responses and reactions. The complexity of ‘race’ and ethnicity, i realized, is much more deeply rooted in the past than i expected, and is having a much larger impact on my present than i was willing to admit until the very moment of truth. #2: That most of our department showed up, and really Showed Up, astounded me! The organizers (all of us) were nervous wreaks. We had had several weeks to prepare fort the worst: no one showing up, people feeling attacked or confronted, the possibility of difficult moments arising, etc. But there we were – nearly 40 of us, quietly participating in what was admittedly (not just by us, but by all of the people we reached out to for help and guidance and support) a very difficult task. And #3: the total maturity with which it was approached. By everyone. Even in the most difficult groups. Even after all was said and done.
One thing i’ve learned in the last few weeks, as i’ve finally found my voice, as it were, within the realm of the academy and in activism, is that we all come to everything everywhere exactly as we are. We always, at all times, have to be cognizant of the fact that what is important is that we are showing up. It may not be exactly where we want everyone to be in the exact moment that we want them to be there – but less than judging people for where they are not, we have a responsibility to recognize and respect where people are. And in that, i am forever and most deeply grateful for the willingness that people have to show up.
But more than that, people showed up ready to participate. Regardless of the shortcomings, regardless of the misgivings, there we were, as a group, prepared to tackle one of the most difficult tasks of being academics. It really is a privilege to be in such a beautifully present group of people and such an earnest and committed group of academics.