By Mary Dana Hinton, Ph.D.
Thank you for the kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be with each of you this afternoon. I am grateful to Julie Plaut and my colleagues at MNCC for this opportunity to speak with you.
As the Campus Compact Board pondered the topics for today, we agreed that we need to extend the conversation beyond just those of us who agree with us. To be truly inclusive we need to hear voices other than our own; voices with which we may disagree; voices with which we may make peace and find justice. To that end, I’d like to talk about expanding the dialogue and I have three key points I’d like to share before we engage in some tabletop conversation. First, I’d like to make a case as to why we need to expand the dialogue. Next, I want to speak specifically about what I perceive as the unique role of education and our campuses in developing and equipping all voices in order to produce an inclusive, educated citizenry. And, finally, I will lead into the exercise by thinking about what we can concretely do on our campuses to facilitate dialogue.
Why we should expand the dialogue
I want to begin by briefly talking about the imperative to expand the dialogue. The quote, often attributed to Desmond Tutu, that has framed how I've thought about my comments today is, "If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies."
One thing that we know for sure is that despite the wonderful advent of technology, which has exponentially increased the ways we can engage with people, most of us remain in our very own echo chambers. We tune into the news or radio station with which we are predisposed to agree. We see updates only from people and outlets we have already “liked” on social media. For example, according to a 2013 Reuters poll, “About 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.” I have seen numbers as high as 75% about racially exclusive relationships.
It is, therefore, entirely possible to isolate ourselves to the extent that we believe everyone does, and should, think like us. We talk about the “other side,” however you define the other side, as our opposite and yet we do not take the time or energy to hear or learn their perspective. They, whomever you define as they, do the same. This critical divide, this isolation, is a significant barrier to dialogue. So how can we, as institutions and communities, work together to create the spaces that move us toward the beauty that is derived of learning?
Role of higher education in expanding the dialogue
I believe we are at a critical juncture in higher education. I think we seriously have to ask ourselves whether our mission is to perpetuate social norms and the status quo or to challenge ourselves by striving for a different reality on our campuses and for our students. Or, as the Pedagogy of the Oppressed reads: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation … and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Today’s gathering is a recognition of the transformative power of community. At a time when national turmoil and strife creates dichotomies throughout many facets of community, today we illustrate our compact with one another. Today is a manifestation of the realization that our work is not to insulate our students, nor ourselves, from the happenings of the world, but to help them learn how to encounter, respond to and, when needed, transform those realities.
Authentic and genuine conversations about issues of inclusion can be difficult and challenging, but for learning organizations such conversations are essential to our work. We must not only look to students to learn. As institutions and communities we, too, must learn. How can our understandings be fashioned and shaped so that, as a community, we are more inclusive? How can we, as author Jim Collins suggests, honor our values – which are overwhelmingly consistent and shared – while at the same time identify new practices that are more inclusive; respectful of our differences; and supportive of the entirety of our communities. How can we, in moments of pain and questioning, support and encourage one another instead of walking away and walling ourselves off?
We know that, to be effective, teaching and learning moves us into some level of discomfort. As we ask questions, challenge historical assumptions, and seek to influence the future in what may be new and innovative ways, we may experience cognitive dissonance as our existing paradigms are tested.
I argue that in the same way that we look to education to help drive improved economic outcomes and social mobility, we must also look to educational institutions to drive communities to reach their potential in the face of great change and complexity and to facilitate difficult conversations.
In the same way that education may move us toward difficult conversations, it is also the only thing that can facilitate peace. We must embrace the tensions that inevitably arise as we challenge the past and look toward the future. We must explore those tensions and attempt to mine them for their lessons and allow them to move us to a new and better way of being in the world. At their best, these conversations can help entire institutions and communities find and use an improved voice.
Out of moments of pain and darkness is emerging a cadre of leaders and a strength of community that may have only been able to be conceived in adversity. Courage is being born in those of us who might have once looked away. Our voices, individually and collective are becoming clearer, louder, and more powerful. We are encouraging our communities to lean in to support and encourage one another. An educational leader I admire once said: people will sometimes draw a circle around themselves to exclude you. Our job, our mission, has to be to draw an even larger circle that includes them. Those who may have once been excluded must make a conscious choice to reach out and include someone else. We must expand the circle of dialogue.
So in the face of this discomfort what should we do? How do we create a space and forum to bring us into a productive dialogue on our campuses?
How do we expand the dialogue
How do we expand the dialogue? Each one of us in this room, regardless of our role on our campuses, has to engage beyond our comfort zone. I had to learn that my most important conversations likely weren't with my friends but with my enemies. Minimally, talking with my detractors forced me to expand my worldview, taught me patience, and, on some occasions, may have changed the perspective of these detractors.
It is challenging to talk with your enemies. It is unfair that I had to, and you have to, use your energy to explain yourself and your worldview. I know what it is to walk into a room and be the only person who looks like me. I was at a conference recently and there were 400 people in the room and I was the only African American woman in the room. I get that. But I also get that part of my task in this life is to walk into that room. To embrace my difference, and to speak my truth. I have to speak it in a way that others can hear it. I have to speak it in a way that represents you well. That represents my family well. That is faithful to all 1933 Bennies that I serve. I have to speak it to my friends and to my enemies. I strive to speak my truth in such a way that were someone to listen, they couldn't tell who is, in fact, a friend and who is an enemy. And, as my chief of staff reminded me, the challenge is sometimes about recognizing friends in a room when you are predisposed to see only enemies. It’s about looking across difference and recognizing friends when they look an awful lot like your enemies.
That’s our task. It is a task that demands more from some of us than others. It is a task that will rely heavily on the work of allies. It is a task that on some days we may refuse to engage in out of a spirit of self protection. But we must do this work and it cannot be any single group that is taking this on disproportionately. Your willingness to extend yourself and to speak up – to be an ally – when you don’t have to; when you’re not explicitly targeted says far more about your intentions than the ease of signing a petition or holding a sign.
And, take solace in knowing that things do change. I am the daughter of woman who has never had a birth certificate because when she was born in North Carolina 91 years ago black births were not systematically recorded as they weren't perceived as having value to the world. I am also the president of the College of Saint Benedict, a women's college in central Minnesota. I reconcile and embrace these realities every day. I am equally proud of where I come from and where I am going. You should be, too. You're here because of the work that came before you. And you, and I, have work to do for those who will come after us.