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Administrators support Call to Action movement

Nicole Michels | Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about the Call to Action movement and the experiences of minority students within the Notre Dame campus community.

The town hall meeting held March 5, 2012 to discuss racial discrimination was the first step to mobilizing the Notre Dame community in the Call to Action Movement.

In the year that has followed that meeting, assistant vice president of student affairs Dr. David Moss has been an administrator walking at the forefront of the University officials trying to follow that lead.

“The students have a very powerful voice on our campus, and when they decide that this type of activity, this type of harassment, is no longer acceptable in our community then it will be eradicated,” Moss said.

To ensure that the students’ voices dominated the Call to Action discourse, Moss said he intentionally structured his work with the movement so that he would facilitate student-led initiatives.

“I’m there for support and to get things done on my level of the administration, but this really needs to be a student-led movement because I think that gets us longevity,” Moss said. “My advice has been for them to find their own voice, because in the past I would say that these efforts were primarily generated and moved forward by the administration, and though that solves the issue for the time being, if the students aren’t behind it and if they don’t buy into it then those gains sometimes are not long-lasting.”

‘A grassroots movement’
From the very beginning, leaders focused on enlisting the support of many different groups – student and administrative – to increase the movement’s capacity to act, Moss said.

“The idea of having all these different entities involved with this process ensures that we will have long-term conversations, and I think that’s where the most effective change happens,” Moss said.Moss said most critical to the facilitation of productive conversations is maintaining each conversation’s focus on the movement’s driving force: the needs of students.

“We’re really trying to be a grassroots [movement],” Moss said. “We’re not talking at 30,000 feet. We’re right down on the ground, [talking] about how this is the experience of our students and that this is how your department might interface with that experience – so let’s have a conversation about making that Notre Dame experience the best that it can be.

Iris Outlaw, director of multicultural student programs and services, said the call for cultural change at Notre Dame found support from the Student Senate, which requested institutional reform related to racial harassment last spring.

Following the March 5, 2012 town hall meeting, the Senate passed a resolution asking for a reevaluation of residence hall staff training and clearer reporting procedures for incidents of harassment.

Outlaw said this resolution complimented internal discussion within Student Affairs at the time regarding discrimination.

“When the resolution came from the Senate it went up to the [then-vice president of student affairs Fr. Tom Doyle], who had at the time already put some things together to investigate and make some changes,” Outlaw said. “As a division we were already talking about how some things need to be changed … this helped to add credit to what the students were saying … and to push forward our own review.”

As the current vice president of student affairs, Erin Hoffmann Harding has maintained her predecessor’s focus on fostering diversity, Outlaw said.

‘A welcoming environment’
In keeping with that Student Senate resolution, Moss said administrators within the Call to Action movement have worked closely with the Student Activities Office to ensure administrators consider the needs of individual students as they go through freshman orientation.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work with Student Activities to make sure we are aware of the kinds of things that can alienate incoming students,” Moss said. “I don’t believe that Notre Dame is a malicious place, by any stretch of the imagination, [but] I just think that we get so comfortable with it being a nice place that we sometimes don’t pay attention to the things that we should.

“Our goal is to heighten the awareness of what could be welcoming and what could be alienating to our students.”
Student Affairs plans to work with the Resident Assistants as they are selected for the 2013-14 school year to ensure they can maintain a welcoming environment in their halls, Moss said.

His department also conducted a review of over 70 Notre Dame websites to ensure they presented a welcoming message, he said. Moss said the review focused on honestly portraying the degree of diversity on campus so that Notre Dame’s websites represent all of Notre Dame.

“[Based on the results of] that survey, I actually made telephone calls to those individuals and to those halls, to those departments our students indicated [needed to review their website],” Moss said. “Everyone was more than willing to … see what changes could be made to make sure that students felt included on welcome on our campus.”

‘A reporting culture’
Moss said the community needed a clearer mechanism for reporting racial harassment and discrimination.”If we don’t have a reporting culture, then these issues continue to fester,” Moss said. “If a student believes that if they report an incident that it’s going to take a lot of time, and it’s going to take a lot of effort and then they’re going to be frustrated with the result then they just won’t report.”

Outlaw said mechanisms to support a more defined reporting culture have been created in partnership with the Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP), building what he called a “one-stop shop” for reporting discriminatory incidents. Keri Kei Shibata, assistant chief for safety services, said NDSP staff met with student leaders following the March 5, 2012 town hall meeting to discuss safety concerns that had been presented during that discussion.

“We talked through some of those things and they said that some of the police procedure they weren’t aware of, and that it might be helpful to all students if it were available to them,” Shibata said. “We also talked about specific situations [mentioned at the meeting], and many of them we had never been aware of as an administration … we stressed to the students that it’s really important that if there is a concern that something was handled wrongly, we want to know about it right away because then we can address it and correct it.”

To increase student awareness of police procedure, Shibata said her department created a webpage called “Know your rights and responsibilities.” The website specifically explains the rights of both students and officers in many common situations, she said.

Shibata said the department also implemented a policy that requires officers to offer their business cards to students after any interaction so thes then can express positive or negative feedback about thedofficer’s behavior. The department has maintained other ongoing racial sensitivity training to continue to improve officer communication, even in high-risk situations, she said.

“We’re here to help, we’re here to serve. … we want to interact and to have honest conversations about things that happened, and also just to help people learn to be safe in the way that they go about their lives,” Shibata said. “We welcome any feedback that people have and any suggestions that they have about how we can improve our service to the community.”

Cultural competency
Outlaw said the Call to Action leaders have also worked with academic programs, looking to develop a curriculum on cultural consciousness.

“That’s one of the things we wanted, to get a cultural competency course that … all students would have to go through regardless of their major,” Outlaw said.

Elizabeth LaFortune, academic advisor for First Year of Studies, is currently the primary instructor for the first iteration of the voluntary, one-credit “Intro to Cultural Competence” course. LaFortune said the course is part of a broader initiative within the First Year of studies to increase students’ ability to engage with cultures different from their own.

“Students learn why cultural competence skills have become essential to functioning successfully in the present environment, what those skills are, and how to acquire and demonstrate them,” LaFortune said.

Even in the initial class meetings, LaFortune said her students’ experiences in her class appear already to have begun to change their perspectives.

“We began the course with a discussion of the unearned privileges of being part of a dominant culture, based on nationality, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic group, race, ability and gender,” LaFortune said. “Our discussions have been honest and lively. The greatest effect on the students as a whole has been a greater awareness of their own cultures and how their cultures affect how they interact with the world.”

Outlaw said the First Year of Studies program provides many opportunities for students to explore the diverse array of cultures represented at Notre Dame, that have been complimented by MSPS initiatives and other programs across the University. The goal of these efforts is to encourage students to think outside of the box, she said.

“Thinking beyond the comfort zone of your own race or ethnicity – that’s all we’re really asking,” Outlaw said. “We want to shift people’s paradigms so they will think in a broader context while interacting with people and not rely on stereotypes – but learn about people one-on-one.”

‘A long way to go’
Change at Notre Dame on these issues will take time. For Moss, these various administrative steps with Call to Action only reflect a beginning.

“Honestly, I think there is a long way to go,” Moss said. “It’s not as bad as it used to be but [I think it’s important] for us not to have any illusions about how far we need to go, because there are still people here who have experiences here that are not what we would call [experiences] of the Notre Dame family.”

Moss said he hopes the movement motivates people to actively work to make the Notre Dame environment more inclusive.

“One of the things I’ve always said about Notre Dame is that this is not an intentionally hostile or discriminatory environment, but it is not an assertive environment either,” Moss said. “For me, the result of this movement – I hope – is going to be that when individuals hear about racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or whatever the case may be, that when they hear about it that they’ don’t just heart [it] and do nothing, but that they actually become involved … and somehow let people know that these types of activities are not acceptable.”