Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. This article was updated to clarify Amy Howard's position title, which is senior administrative officer for equity and community.
On Tuesday, Sept. 29, and Thursday, Oct. 1, the University of Richmond held its first Equity Summit. This student-led summit was the culmination of several months of work, building upon the open-mic session, led by Lina Tori Jan, ‘20, that responded to a series of racist and xenophobic incidents on campus last January. The goal of the Equity Summit was to raise awareness and promote inclusive, sustained and potentially transformative dialogue around a range of social justice issues, spanning six sessions over two days.
Students, faculty, staff, alumni and administrators attended the summit. Based on our registration files, more than 300 people attended the opening session on the evening of Sept. 29. Following the opening session, attendees were directed to sessions they had signed up for in advance, with 132 attendees at the xenophobia session, 110 at the violence prevention session and 135 at the LGBTQIA+ session. On Oct. 1, 65 people participated in the session on Africana studies, 75 in the session on anti-semitism and 131 in the session on white privilege.
As organizers of the Equity Summit, we sought to align our work with other critical change efforts on campus by contributing to the growth of a public dialogue. We envisioned a dialogue where members of the UR community could lean into difficult conversations with mindfulness, compassion and critical inquiry, to further realize our campus’s goals of inclusive excellence.
Because the summit was new, we did not know what to expect, but hoped it could provide a unique space (perhaps even a safe one) to name some of the elephants in the room about inequality on campus and speak openly about some of the difficult issues students face on campus.
Feedback was positive. Some participants reflected this was the first time they felt true transparency and vulnerability between students and administrators. Participants noted that they usually do not see faculty, staff and campus administrators as vulnerable as they were during the summit. This increased vulnerability made it easier for participants to share and reflect.
Although we are grateful for the summit, we are even more thankful for the process that unfolded over the months leading up to the event. The four of us (two students, one staff member and one faculty member) convened weekly via Zoom, starting in June. We were mindful of the social strata at UR that can sometimes silo students away from faculty, and faculty away from staff. We sought to create a space where we could share openly in a spirit of equitable dialogue. By late July, our core group had grown to include 11 students serving on the summit’s leadership board and about 25 student leaders and student advocates attending weekly general body planning meetings.
The student leaders and advocates helping plan the Equity Summit held diverse perspectives — not only racially, politically and ethnically, but also administratively, in terms of the organizations and leadership represented. Student leadership included members of the Richmond College Government Student Association, Westhampton Government Student Association, the Africana Studies Student Committee, national political science honor society Pi Sigma Alpha, Asian American Student Union, African Student Alliance, Solidarity Organization for Latinx Students, Jepson Student Government Association, LGBTQ+ Coalition, Ritmo Latino, Students Against Sexual Assault Violence, South Asian Student Alliance, Black Student Alliance, Chinese Student and Scholars Association, Hillel and Bollywood Jhatkas.
In addition, the University Faculty Senate unanimously endorsed and agreed to co-sponsor the summit, and numerous offices and initiatives at UR provided insights and critical resources: director of institutional equity and inclusion Glyn Hughes and the longstanding support from the Office of Common Ground (going back to the open-mic session in January); the newly appointed senior administrative officer for equity and community Amy Howard; the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement; and members of Interpoint.
Finally, numerous faculty and staff supported the dialogues by offering feedback, and many volunteered to serve as note-takers during the Zoom sessions. The Equity Summit would not have been possible without the support from each of these groups and campus leaders, and we are grateful for each of their contributions.
Moving forward, we hope to make the Equity Summit an annual tradition, and nurture, develop and sustain more campus-wide dialogues about hard topics, leaning in to the difficult conversations while maintaining a sense of openness, humility, inclusivity and dignity. However, this will not be a solo endeavor. We are grateful to be part of a variety of change efforts (e.g., Interpoint, the Connecting Womxn of Color Conference, the Chaplaincy’s “Crucial Conversations,” Intersections, Common Ground’s White Anti-Racism series) that have begun to take deep root into our campus culture.
In December, we will make public the first Equity Summit report, summarizing the notes taken during all the sessions. In the meantime, we invite you to continue Equity Summit conversations via the channel-based messaging platform Slack. Our intention is to grow our Slack workspace, titled Equity Summit Dialogues, as a virtual space where students, faculty, staff, alumni and administrators can continue to exchange ideas discussed during the Equity Summit and keep the momentum going for social justice and change on campus.
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If the events over the past year have taught us anything, it’s that the unexpected can happen. We don’t know what 2021 will bring us in terms of social justice work, but we hope UR can be a campus where we engage more often and more publicly in difficult conversations and do so with a spirit of grace, mindfulness, honesty, humility and compassion.
We realize we may never find consensus on some of the challenging issues we face, but our intention is to keep the conversations going and sow the seeds of a campus environment in which we can name our disagreements publicly and feel heard, valued and hopefully even safe. We want UR to be a campus we can all be more proud of — a small, liberal arts college taking on the big challenges of the day.
Tommy Na (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior at UR. Hijab Fatima (email@example.com) is a senior at UR. Blake Stack (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant director of student engagement and operations in the Center for Civic Engagement. Monti Narayan Datta (email@example.com) is a professor in the department of political science.
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