At MCLA's 'Day of Dialogue,' topics challenge perceptions

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NORTH ADAMS — Tracey Benson quipped that it was sort of ironic that he was asked to be the keynote speaker for the second "Day of Dialogue," held Thursday at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

" 'Dialogue' " is two ways, speaking with you; 'speaking' is talking at you," said Benson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and a former administrator for Pittsfield Public Schools.

"I'm changing it up so that we're dialoguing with each other, and we're going to extend it beyond where we are."

This is the second year MCLA is holding a Day of Dialogue, one of a number of initiatives the college has undertaken in an effort to create an increasingly equitable campus. This year's program theme was "Educating a Diverse Community: Inclusive Teaching and Learning at MCLA."

Administrators halted day and evening classes to promote full campus participation by students and faculty, although attendance was not regulated.

Eighteen workshops, ranging from "Teaching Diversity from a Global Perspective" to "A Spectrum of Experiences: Autistic Students on College, Life, and Neurodiversity," were developed for and primarily presented by students and faculty.

During the afternoon discussion at the Amsler Campus Center Gymnasium, Benson asked participating students, faculty, staff and community members to partner with someone at their lunch table and discuss their responses to three questions relative to how people understand and navigate the differences between themselves and others. Participants then were invited to share their responses in real time via Twitter, using the hashtag, "#MCLAdayofdialogue," in hopes that the conversation could be carried beyond campus.

With spiral-bound notebooks and Twitter apps open, Kim Rifenberg and Cole Cross paused when receiving the prompts:

1: When is the first time you learned about "the other"?

2: What is holding you back from understanding "the other"?

3: What is my role in helping our society move forward?

"This is kind of hard," Cross said.

Among the four first-year students at the table, none said they had been asked to consider questions like these before.

Eventually, Rifenberg and Cross discussed how being white is associated with privilege, and how school rivalries can carry beyond sports and into issues of class and elitism.

Confronting topics that challenge one's perception is the point of having a Day of Dialogue, said MCLA's chief diversity officer, Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, who worked with a campuswide committee to develop and present this year's program.

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"This is the place where we get to ask those difficult questions, and come up with solutions," he said.

Kyle Tisdale, a freshman from Lee, said he sort of stumbled into his first morning workshop, titled "Black Feminism Then & Now."

"It was really crowded but deserving of the attention," he said. "The presenters talked about how black women do not have nearly as much opportunity or recognition despite their contributions to society."

Tisdale also said he learned about intersectionality — how discrimination can become intensified when prejudice toward a person's gender, ethnicity, culture and class, among other classifications, overlap. "That's the worst," he said, "especially for black women."

In their own terms, Benson and MacDonald-Dennis stressed the fact that conversations like this cannot be left hanging in space.

"It's a matter of how do we learn from a day like this and not just check the box of doing diversity work," MacDonald-Dennis said.

He said he is holding himself and the campus community accountable to a newly drafted "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Plan" to tackle specific goals and campus initiatives. He said he also noticed how sessions on mental health, autism, disability and black feminism were at or near standing-room-only capacity, indicating a need to respond and deepen dialogues around these subjects.

Kerri Nicoll, a member of the MCLA Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, will resume co-teaching a spring course on intergroup dialogue, which emphasizes the need for people to form relationships by hearing experiences of how people grew up or formulated their values before talking about differences.

"Through this effort we get to see each other as human beings. ... That helps us relate to each other," she said. "We need to do a better job at this institution to make the spaces for this to happen."

Tarah Agathe Valin, a sophomore from Brockton, and Brandon Hill, a freshman from the Bronx, N.Y., attended a session titled "The Art + Practice of Self Care," which, they both said, they found to be helpful and meaningful.

"It was presented in a way that wasn't anything like in a classroom," Valin said. "It was led by students, and people could say things honestly."

"I like the idea of self-care, in particular, because there are a lot of problems on campus, and a lot of students feel like they're fighting for some cause, but it can be exhausting," she added.

Hill said the session taught him "the importance of being a self-advocate."

"Today, a lot of people spoke their mind, which is good," he said. "A lot of times people feel like they're going through things by themselves, that they're alone, but there are other people on this campus who feel the same way.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6239.


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