Difficult Dialogue Series created to ‘better understand each other’
In July, Marian Vasser agreed to serve as UofL’s inaugural director for Diversity Education and Inclusive Excellence. The new functional area is designed to support campus-wide diversity education and training and is based on recommendations from the 21st Century Culture of Excellence and the President’s Diversity Steering Committees.
Programming kicked off in October with the first part of the Difficult Dialogue Series, featuring Dr. Frances Kendall. Kendall is an expert on diversity and organizational change, and is the author of “Understanding White Privilege and Diversity in the Classroom.”
During her presentation, Kendall, who is white, discussed how her Southern heritage hinders necessary conversations, particularly between those of different races and classes.
“We who are white and raised in the South are raised not to say too much. We are taught clearly what we can and cannot say. Some of this is cloaked in ‘manners,’” she said. “But until we begin to talk across races, we will never be able to fix the messes we’re in today. If I don’t know what other people experience, I have no way to connect with them personally.”
The two-hour program continued with those in attendance participating in “authentic” conversations that were meant to be difficult. The objective was to “better understand each other.”
This correlates with Vasser’s overall objectives with the Diversity Education and Inclusive Excellence program. As part of her work, she will continue to develop and deliver diversity and inclusion training opportunities and workshops.
She will also work with various partners to develop leadership and training opportunities for students, staff and faculty. Currently, there are 27 campus partners being trained as facilitators for the Difficult Dialogue Series. Cultivating such partnerships help advance the goal of creating more inclusive and equitable climates, Vasser said.
Nearly 50 diversity workshops and/or training sessions reaching close to 3,500 participants had been conducted as of Oct. 31. The majority of those sessions focused on implicit bias awareness and tools for interrupting bias.
Following a passion
Prior to this role, Vasser was the coordinator for Diversity Programs for the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office for International, Diversity, and Engagement Programs. In her new position, she is able to continue her passion, which lies with social justice.
“I work tirelessly to engage others in the work of creating environments that are more inclusive and equitable for all. It is a blessing to have my personal and professional passion align perfectly. It is also exciting being in a unit where this work is fully supported and modeled,” she said.
That’s not to say Vasser doesn’t expect some challenges.
“Although there will always be those who are resistance to this critical work, those numbers pale in comparison to those who desire to engage,” she said.
Vasser said she has already received several emails and anecdotal comments from the program’s participants demonstrating how they were able to use information obtained in a session to acknowledge and interrupt harmful effects of a particular bias.
“(One) participant shared how they are becoming more aware of their areas of privilege and sent a picture of a ramp that was blocked near a construction site. This individual articulated this barrier with inspiring passion as an able-bodied person,” Vasser said. “Stories like those are perfect examples that this work is needed and is also effective.”