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Leaders reimagine diversity, inclusion

Nicole Michels | Friday, December 13, 2013

 

Student body leaders at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s targeted issues of racial and cultural inclusion this year by developing programming, orchestrating community-building initiatives and advocating for institutional changes.

Notre Dame student body president Alex Coccia said he believes the difficult nature of conversations about race challenges students attempting to dialogue about issues of diversity and inclusion. The student government administration’s role is to facilitate that dialogue, he said.

“I think, overall, what we recognized is that race is a tough issue to talk about on campus,” Coccia said. “And because so many of these issues of violence or harassment or discrimination are under a layer of silence, we don’t know about them, and it makes it even more difficult to talk about them.”

Student body vice president Nancy Joyce said their administration aims to create events that foster communication about these issues.

“There are two things that I think we can pinpoint going forward as something we can work on. One is kind of creating this safe space for the conversations to happen,” Joyce said. “The other thing is that I think Notre Dame students tend to be very modest, very humble, and when they don’t feel like they are an expert on the topic that they don’t think they can engage in a real conversation.

“Maybe, on our part, that’s helping to educate students, whether that’s co-sponsoring forum discussions or different lectures, whatever it may be, trying to bring those kinds of things -the educational piece -into the mainstream, and trying to get people talking. That’s something that is definitely doable between now and [the end of the administration’s term on] March 31.

Coccia said the student body’s recognition of the need to focus on racial and cultural inclusion grew after the 2012 inception of the Call to Action movement. This group formed as a partnership between student government, student-group leaders and select members of the administration after the town-hall meeting called to address the discriminatory incidents inflicted upon the Black Student Association (BSA) and African Students Association (ASA) in February of that year.

Joyce said the student government administration has worked to extend initiatives from past years in order to “bring some of the conversations from the margins into the mainstream.” Student government has focused on connecting with individuals in the Office of Student Affairs and on the President’s Oversight Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in order to garner University support for student-led initiatives, she said.

Their administration also has worked to support the Diversity Council, a body comprised of 29 clubs that include the historically underrepresented communities on campus, Coccia said.

On Dec. 5, the Diversity Council submitted a resolution to the University with recommendations on how to improve the Notre Dame experience for all members of its community, and Student Senate passed a resolution supporting all measures of the Diversity Council’s resolution Nov. 20.

“[Senior] Luis [Llanos] has done a fantastic job with Diversity Council, which is really important, especially with how he talks about the resolution that was just sent up,” Coccia said. “This resolution was not just some list of recommendations that people pulled out of a hat. No, it was after months of discussion and debate following from the Call to Action and other student initiatives like the MEChA [Movimiento de Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán] surveys a couple years ago, and agreed upon by all of the different groups represented on Diversity Council.

“Twenty-nine groups unanimously agreed upon the fact that these are the [initiatives] that are going to make members of their communities more welcome on campus. That argument could not have been made, were the Diversity Council not as strong as it is.”

Llanos, chair of the Diversity Council, said the group will work with student government and administrators to determine which points can be addressed quickly, while developing a long-term focus. The Diversity Council’s role connecting minority communities on campus uniquely allows it to serve as the point of contact between student government, the University and underrepresented communities among the student body, he said. 

“In order to serve our main function, [Diversity Council (DC)] has two major roles: a social one and political one,” Llanos said. “As a social council, it is responsible in aiding in the collaboration and communication of the 29 clubs that sit on our council. Under our political agenda, DC seeks to discuss major issues on campus with our clubs and how those issues most affect our communities.

“Because the communities in our clubs are minorities in number, we make sure that their voices are not drowned out whenever there is an important issue. In this way, we work hand-in-hand with student government. … I’m happy to say there have been direct lines of communication and close coordination between DC and student government, something that had not been very present in the past.”

Coccia said he believes the coordinated, institutional effort will be crucial to efforts to improve the degree of inclusivity on campus.

“If you don’t have institutional support or if there doesn’t seem to be institutional support, it’s an ever harder conversation to have because it puts students into three categories: one is going to be the people who really push for these changes, one is going to be the people who probably support but because there is no institutional commitment they’re not going to speak up about it, and there are the others who don’t agree with the recommendations,” Coccia said. “Without that institutional support, you miss out on a lot of people who could be engaged in the conversation. That’s why it’s generally very important, when we talk about people having this conversation, we don’t want it to be alienating.

“Ultimately, we’re talking about what is going to make our community more welcome to all. … I think working with Diversity Council like we have, using various avenues that we have access to … to make it clear that this is a priority among students is really where student government fits in.”

Saint Mary’s student body president Kat Sullivan said her team has worked to support the efforts of the Saint Mary’s Student Diversity Board [SDB]. Senior and SDB president Maria del Carmen Cardenas, as well as senior and vice president of SDB Lucy Macfarlane, plan cultural programming and foster communication at the College in their capacities on SDB. 

“[Saint Mary’s student body vice president] Maddy [Martin] and I are very proud of how hard Carmen and Lucy have worked to really get SDB to where it needs to be this year. They’re approaching diversity in a new and innovative way,” Sullivan said. “We always back up all of our boards and all of our councils, so we definitely stand behind their initiatives.”

SDB, comprised of 30 representatives from various ethnic and cultural clubs, works to unite the College community in “celebration of all cultural diversity of every woman on campus” while fostering awareness of cultural differences, Cardenas said.

“[Cardenas] likes to say that the Student Diversity Board is like the United Nations of Saint Mary’s -we try to make sure that everyone is at the table, everyone is heard,” Macfarlane said.

Cardenas said the group plans to focus on including international students in the College’s cultural events, while continuing to coordinate the activity of the clubs on the Board. She herself also sits on the Presidential Council of Multicultural Affairs, she said.

The fall bonfire and the spring Student Diversity Leadership Conference are the highlights in their calendar, which includes issue weeks highlighting different topics for the community, Cardenas said.

Cardenas said she and Macfarlane use an innovative definition of diversity to orient the work of SDB.

“I know [people] sometimes think of diversity as being just racial and ethnic, but for us, we took it a step further,” Cardenas said. “When we were reading applications for the girls we were considering to be on the Board, we expanded it to economic diversity, religious diversity, sexuality, gender identity -any part of your identity that you feel makes you, you, we want to make sure that is talked about.”

Macfarlane said this definition of diversity is personally important to her, as well.

“When we were talking about the way our campus thinks about diversity, [we realized] it’s just race and ethnicity,” Macfarlane said. “You know, ‘You look different from me, you’re diverse.’ The joke is always like, ‘Lucy, why are you on Diversity Board? You’re just this white girl.’

“Well, I have my own background, too, and that’s just as important, and we want to create that safe environment that meant we just needed to be there for each other. That’s as simple as it gets, this creating a safe space for anyone and everyone to make sure they have a spot at the table.”