Diversity and Democracy

Community Days of Learning: Building Capacity for Challenging Conversations

In spring and fall 2014, the Bryn Mawr College community was rocked by several bias and racist incidents, and more broadly by the police shootings of African Americans that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the course of the meetings, demonstrations, and discussions that followed, the college recognized that we had to find a means of engaging the entire campus—students, faculty, and staff—in a shared conversation about race and racism as one important step in working toward greater equity and inclusion.

With less than a three-month planning window, Bryn Mawr created a Community Day of Learning (CDL) for which all classes would be cancelled and all offices closed. To communicate the importance of building a cross-institutional commitment to addressing racism in our community and to emphasize our belief that each one of us had much to learn, we asked the campus as a whole—all faculty, staff, and students—to participate in this event. We also opened up the opportunity to plan and execute the event to anyone who wished to help as a way of building positive momentum for working together for change.

A Democratic Experience

The President’s Office scheduled weekly planning meetings, and an open invitation to participate in planning went out to all faculty, staff, and students. Programming for the CDL was crowd-sourced: anyone in the community could submit a proposal to lead a session, committee members brainstormed additional ideas and sought out possible session organizers, and all proposals for sessions were accepted. The committee actively encouraged varied topics and modes of participation so that every community member could find meaningful ways to take part, regardless of each person’s comfort level or specific expertise in addressing difficult issues of race and racism. Finally, the committee removed barriers to participation by effectively closing the college for regular business and strongly encouraged rather than required attendance, recognizing that mandated diversity training can produce resentment as much as change.

Letting go of ordinary forms of planning and project management was both challenging and liberating. The compressed timeline and crowd-sourced approach required us to accept imperfections. The committee prepared for unpredictable participation levels by including performances by a social justice–oriented theater group in a space that could accommodate a large audience. Fabulous ideas for the day surfaced from many sources, ranging from a passionate student who came to the President’s Office to share a dozen wonderful topics for sessions to the conferences and events staff who structured the opening plenary session to facilitate engagement among people who did not ordinarily interact. Finally, we deliberately set modest, but meaningful, goals: that every participant would learn at least one new thing about race and racism, and that every participant would have a conversation with someone the participant had not previously known. We emphasized that this day of shared learning was critical, but only one step in ongoing work to address bias.

The result was a powerful democratic experience of teaching and learning. More than eight hundred participants (of twenty-three hundred student, faculty, and staff members in the college community) took part in more than forty sessions; formats included performances, workshops, panel discussions, facilitated dialogues, and lectures. Presenters reflected the range of experiences and knowledge represented in our community, and included undergraduates, archivists, facilities and dining services staff members, faculty, student services staff, graduate students, administrators, and others. Some sessions focused on the history of the college, including the ways in which policies and campus buildings have reflected and created the racial and class barriers of different eras. Others concerned the experiences of current students, staff, or faculty; possibilities of changing pedagogy or curriculum; the nature of microaggressions and the existence of implicit bias; strategies for bystander intervention; and the history of racism in the United States or in the nations of origin of our many international students and faculty. The participation of many student and staff presenters helped realign ordinary expectations regarding who is an expert on a college campus, and why.

Learning and Action

Race and racism—like the topics of class and of belonging, which have been the themes of subsequent CDLs—are difficult issues to address, especially in public settings. Some participants chose sessions where they could listen rather than participate more actively, in part for fear of saying the wrong thing. By providing opportunities to listen, we increased willingness to participate and, ultimately, the number of people engaged in learning. But we also encouraged and supported openness and risk-taking by establishing ground rules for respectful engagement. The college’s assistant dean for inclusion and diversity brought both her professional expertise and the respect she has earned across campus to bear when she shared these ground rules at the opening plenary session.

The planning committee was aware that many on campus were looking for action as well as learning. We ended the day by asking all participants to make a written commitment to a personal action—however large or small. These statements were subsequently shared publicly (without attribution) at a campus gathering. Planning committee members were also charged with developing priorities for institutional action that surfaced during the course of the day, and with communicating these priorities to senior administrators and faculty.

The 2015 CDL catalyzed the development of an institutional diversity plan and annual report that were published in spring 2016. Orientation for new faculty now features a session on inclusion and equity, as does the required noncredit course for first-year students intended to enhance their ability to thrive in a diverse community. Following the 2016 CDL, which included a session on the $15-per-hour living-wage movement, the college has directed part of annual increases in staff salaries to a multiyear goal of achieving the living wage rate for all employees. We also have reviewed student employment practices and have changed policies to create pay equity across types of campus jobs and to direct budget dollars to support a higher base for student salaries. Students have also acted. For example, several who organized a session on the problem of disrespect for student workers in dining services created a new initiative (Humanizing the Hat) and successfully lobbied to offer a session at first-year student orientation to help change campus culture and behaviors.

Assessing Outcomes

In a post-event survey following the 2015 CDL, 95 percent of respondents said that they wanted to see more CDLs in the future. Most reported that they had learned something about race and racism on campus and/or in the world, and survey results indicated particularly strong interest in learning about the histories of race at Bryn Mawr. An unintended but powerful outcome was the value that so many placed on the experience of meeting and learning from others across campus.

The college subsequently hosted Community Days of Learning in 2016 and 2017; the 2016 event focused on socioeconomic class, while in 2017 we explored an intersectional approach to belonging (and not belonging) in the campus community. In 2016, the planning committee was concerned that an event not prompted by crisis might have less impact than the original CDL. In fact, increased outreach contributed to increased participation (with over nine hundred total participants) and the response remained highly positive. In 2017, the percentage of students attending and participating in session offerings increased. Campus members appeared to participate more selectively in sessions, but their satisfaction with the quality of sessions was extremely high. Following this third year of programming, we are assessing goals, format, and outreach strategies to sustain campus-wide engagement with the ongoing work of building equity and inclusion.

Bryn Mawr recognizes that its Community Days of Learning are not sufficient in and of themselves to address the challenges of inequity and exclusion on our campus, but the democratic approach that characterizes the CDLs has offered us a valuable means of surfacing new ideas and important issues, as well as a vehicle for learning and building campus commitment, responsibility, and accountability. We look forward to keeping this new campus tradition as a vibrant strategy for education, community building, and change.

Editor’s note: More information about the 2015, 2016, and 2017 Community Days of Learning is available at www.brynmawr.edu.

Kimberly Cassidy is President and Ruth Lindeborg is Secretary of the College at Bryn Mawr College.

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