by Adria Walker
Across the country, minority students at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) are speaking out against instances of institutional and micro-aggressional racism on their college campus—one of the most notable examples being the students at Mizzou who led a call for on-campus change last autumn. Amongst Mizzou’s demands were institutional acknowledgment of systematic oppression, a removal of the college’s president, and that Mizzou meet the Legion of Black Collegians’ 1969 demands for the betterment of the black community (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5pPLuvq-gBqZjNDTDI2RmZVVEU/view?pli=1). While Millsaps’ minority students have, so far, not led any protests, demonstrations or sit-ins, given the current political and racial climate, discussions of race and identity on campus in some form are inevitable.
Dr. Anita DeRouen, director of writing and teaching and assistant professor, has been involved with Racial Dialogue Circles on Millsaps’ campus since its prototypal days. In February of 2013, DeRouen says that she and Susan Womack, assistant vice president of institutional advancement, worked with Noel Didla and Robby Luckett, both from Jackson State University, on a joint event called “Necessary Tension” that brought Mississippi author, Kiese Laymon to both campuses. Laymon’s essay “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” explored Laymon’s own personal experiences with race and racism in Jackson—including his time as a student at Millsaps.
That event, along with a discussion between Womack and DeRouen about racial dialogue sessions done by Jackson 2000, a non-profit organization that aims to positively affect social, political and economic issues in Jackson, led DeRouen to want to create a type of conversational space on Millsaps’ campus.
“I was teaching a course on race and rhetoric and I thought [a racial dialogue] would be a really good activity for my students to participate in, so I asked [Womack] if she would come in and do those sessions with my students,” DeRouen said.
That initial session went so well that DeRouen and Womack decided to have it again, extending an open invitation to all who were interested in participating. JSU and Millsaps held a race dialogue that alternated between campuses in the spring semester of 2014.. “One of the things that was said during those session… was whether or not we could do something like this with Foundations,” DeRouen said.
Womack and DeRouen proposed the idea of hosting a race dialogue as a class to the African-American Student Advisory Circle (AASAC ) and to Dean Brit Katz and as providence would have it, QEP Health created a hole in the schedule allowing a perfect space for the Race Dialogue.
Derouen says that she became interested in hosting racial conversations after noticing students having trouble navigating spaces that highlighted racial differences. “It is really important to me that we equip our students with the skills that they need to be able to navigate and negotiate the world that they inhabit. I had a growing awareness of the challenges our students were having going to the various contents where they engage with the community and some of them coming back frustrated or not sure how to deal with or process what they had experienced there,” DeRouen said.
DeRouen says she heard stories of students who were feeling overwhelmed or who were having negative reactions to what they were seeing outside of the Millsaps bubble.
Bekah Ervin, a sophomore communications major and foundations leader, participated in the Race Dialogues at Millsaps last year. “I hoped that most of my [foundation’s group] would go through [the race dialogues], because I had never experienced anything like that, because race wasn’t something that was talked about in my high school or any time prior,” Ervin said.
Millsaps’ Race Dialogues are intentionally different from what is usually thought of as diversity training. Instead of having groups of people talk at each other, which can often leave both parties feeling drained and without any call to action or understanding, the Dialogue Circle approach, which takes place over several weeks instead of only at one time and is done in small groups, is designed to help students start talking to each other.
“What we’re doing here is not the norm… Us doing [the dialogue] over this amount of time, with the resources we’ve put into it, and the dedicated facilitators who are faculty and staff members… That alone is a tremendous thing, especially with a college our size,” DeRouen said. “We have half of the freshman class engaging in this type of dialogue—that’s unusual.”
Last year, Ervin noticed that, until the end of the semester, most students in the class did not speak and the facilitator frequently ended up answering his or her own questions. Towards the end of year, she says that often times the black students in the class would sit together and not speak because they were uncomfortable, while the white students in the class dominated the speaking time.
This year, the freshmen students participating in the Race Dialogues are organized differently than how they were organized previously. In the past, students were continuously in racially mixed groups. However, this year, over the six-week long program, students are first given time to speak about race in a space with people who look like them, before moving into integrated groups.
There is not an equal number of students from various racial groups so, in the first year, the goal was to try to make sure there were at least three students of color in every group of 15 students. DeRouen says facilitators recognized that having one student of color in a group of 14 white students would be a sure-fire way to shut down dialogue. The hope was that three students of color would allow everyone to feel comfortable with expressing him or herself honestly and truly.
After focus-grouping students who participated in last year’s discussions, the team found that some students, both students of color and white students, were holding back and did not feel comfortable speaking. Upon getting that feedback, facilitators decided to apply the affinity group model, which is a dialogue model from Everyday Democracy.
The Affinity Group model, in its true form, meets for nine-weeks. The first two weeks, participants meet in affinity groups, or groups that are categorized by people of the same race or ethnicity. The next six-weeks, the groups would meet in mixed settings to allow for dialogue across racial and ethnic boundaries, before a final week of meeting in the affinity group. Millsaps has adopted an abbreviated version of this—in which the first two weeks are in the affinity groups and the next four weeks are in mixed groups. “It’s more about identifying your role in something, as opposed to walking in on the first day and being told you’re racist,” DeRouen said.
During freshman orientation, one of the students suggested the creation of a mixed group in which students could choose to be placed , as opposed to participating in an affinity group. About 17 students made the choice to opt-in to the mixed group, which is led by DeRouen herself, but the majority of the students stayed in their original groups. Staffers who are ethnically similar to the participants lead the affinity groups.
Initially, Ervin did not like the idea of segregating the students based on their race. However, after she had time to reflect on her personal experience as someone who had participated in the Racial Dialogues, Ervin warmed up to the idea. “It was already segregated. I think it’s a good thing because it gives people who actually deal with these issues first hand a safe haven where they can talk to their peers who have also experienced these same things,” Ervin said.
Ervin also likes the idea of integrating the groups after giving them time to speak in their separate spaces. “I think it’s good that they’re integrating it again later to get both perspectives. When we first came in, nobody wanted to talk at all… When people finally did start to talk, the program was almost over,” Ervin