Students felt lost, expectant, angry, overwhelmed: the room was full of emotions at the diversity training for Associated Students employees. There also were feelings of optimism, pride, relief, and excitement after two hours of an intense, round-robin style discussion about race, privilege, and oppression.
The diversity training was facilitated by the Social Issues Resource Center, part of the Associated Students Resources and Outreach Program. In the past, diversity trainings were facilitated by outside groups brought to campus, and they sometimes left students feeling frustrated. “What we had last year was basically a celebration of everyone’s identities and appreciating everyone’s identities,” said Marcella Tomlin, the Vice President of Diversity in the Associated Students, “but there wasn’t really anything that was proactive with that sort of training.”
This year, Social Issues Resource Center Coordinator Afrose Ahmed and Assistant Coordinators Becky Renfrow and David Cahn designed a training program to present to their peers at the Associated Students training on September 13.
The SIRC staff challenges the very notion of diversity in their diversity training.
“The training was not about diversity,” said SIRC Coordinator Afrose Ahmed. “It was a training about oppression. Diversity that is one of the buzz words we use in this institution and in lots of universities and corporations to be politically correct, and we weren’t trying to be politically correct. We were hoping people would engage in an honest and open conversation and that they wouldn’t shy away from things that were controversial.”
Assistant Coordinator David Cahn also questions the word diversity.
“[Diversity] is this code word that means a lot of different things and nobody knows what,” said Cahn. “Even if you’re ignorant of your surroundings, you have to vaguely know that something’s not right on our campus and in our country and the world, and most of us are only giving fuzzy words like diversity. It’s not a good word to help guide you through that mess. We need to start developing better language, if language is to help you get through the world and control your reality.”
The SIRC facilitators encourage students to examine their identity and in what ways it privileges them.
“The trick of privilege is that it’s invisible,” said Ahmed. “We’re trying to help people understand and reclaim their identities.”
The diversity training designed and facilitated by SIRC fits into the larger theme of the office’s goal for this year.
“We have resources, we have events that we put on in our programming, but this year we’re trying to push fewer specific issues--like bringing a speaker to talk about fair trade or bringing a film about the war on drugs. What we’re trying to do is help people who come to our events to formulate their own analysis of power in the world,” said Ahmed.
Through these events, Cahn hopes SIRC will reach more individual students. “We do want to engage with more students on a one to one level, but we’re going to do so much more than that, too,” said Cahn. “We’re programming events that actually expect more from our fellow students in terms of their interests, awareness, and readiness to be more involved.”
When it comes to sharing resources with students this year, SIRC already has a big agenda. They will speak to incoming Fairhaven freshmen and transfer students about community activism.
“The purpose of that workshop,” said Ahmed, “Is to impress upon the new students that there is a deep urgency for people to mobilize in their community, and that students have a lot of access to resources and power that will help them in that endeavor.”
SIRC will also be putting on workshops for the Freshmen Interest Groups. “We’re going to do some more stuff focused around race,” said Cahn.
In addition to facilitating workshops, SIRC provides access resources and power is one of the ultimate goals of the SIRC office.
“The SIRC is a network, or its a hub, for people who are involved in a variety of issues and activities on campus to communicate with each other,” said Ahmed. “We’re hoping that we’ll create the Social Issues Network of Clubs (SINC).”
“It’ll be a place and function for AS clubs and community groups to get together and communicate about their functions and put on more effective programming, more sustained campaigns. We’re hoping then to connect those clubs to resources on campus or community organizations.”
Cahn is optimistic about this school year and challenges students who want to make a difference. “There’s a certain trap that comes up in Western and Bellingham,” said Cahn, “that activism is going to events on campus and going to events off campus and learning about how bad the world is, and then you go home. That’s good to raise awareness, but that’s not changing anything concrete. One thing you can expect from SIRC this year is talking about the actual skills it takes to change things. There’s a lot of energy on this campus and a lot of smart kids, and if we challenge ourselves to focus, I think we can do a lot this year.”
The SIRC, however, is not just for activists. Ahmed stresses that everyone is welcome there. “I do think that our purpose is to engage students who are not necessarily interested in activism,” she said. “Some people shy away, I knew as a freshman I shied away from the term activism. I found it to be part of a culture I wasn’t part of. I’m hoping to make the SIRC a place where anybody feels welcome. There’s a lot of barriers to doing that, that’s why we’re trying to do a lot of outreach with the new students. We want them to feel welcome here and at the AS and on campus in general.”
“Personally, for me everything is a social issue, or involves and element of social issues,” Ahmed said in closing. “I think what we’re asking to do is mobilize students. We’re part volunteer center, we’re part anti-oppression center, part forum or space for people to hang out together. We are trying to be an open, welcoming space, and that means anyone of any political ideology of background. We’re trying to reach out to folks and hope we’ll be a valuable resource for people.”