Getting Strategic: Diversity and Community
Issue   |   Wed, 04/09/2014 - 01:26

This article is the third in a four-part series about the four core committees involved in this year’s strategic planning process.

This year, the Diversity and Community Strategic Planning Committee has been working to examine the meaning of diversity at Amherst. Along with the three other main committees involved in this year’s strategic planning process, the Diversity and Community committee has been involved in thinking about the College’s identity and plans for the future.

In meetings and discussions about the College’s future, the committee has been discussing such issues as what it means to live in a community of heterogeneity, and what it would mean to truly make diversity a core value of the College.

Amherst is already recognized for its high commitment to racial, ethnic and socioeconomic student diversity. In recent years, the Office of Admissions has stepped up its commitment to admitting a diverse body of applicants that includes many low-income students, first-generation students, non-U.S. citizens and students of color.

“The College was thinking about representation, of having as many different people as possible come in the door,” said Shruthi Badri ’16, an Association of Amherst Students senator and member of the committee. “We always say that it’s a small thing, but it’s a huge thing. It involves unprecedented, massive amounts of financial aid and a great deal of outreach.”

However, the committee is also interested in moving beyond the representational diversity of admitted students and thinking about how to increase the Amherst’s commitment to diversity within the College community.

“We hope our students will go out into the world and make things happen in a world that is increasingly multicultural, and so why not start that process here?” said Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander, professor of Black Studies and English and chair of the committee. “The idea that people could come together to collaborate and learn from each other, is really, really important to how we see learning at Amherst and intellectual development at Amherst.”

According to Cobham-Sander, the committee recognizes that in order to build a community of diversity in which different groups can learn together and communicate meaningfully with one another, the College must do more than simply get diverse groups of people to live in the same place.

“Putting people of different races and cultures together does not guarantee that they will get along or learn from each other,” Cobham-Sander said.

Cobham-Sander said the committee realizes that simply putting people of difference together can actually lead to harm instead of good. In order to address this problem, the Committee has put forth plans for a safe and secure environment that supports and respects difference to enable all members to freely communicate across difference.

Psychology Professor Elizabeth Aries, a member of the committee and author of the book “Race and Class Matters at an Elite College,” cited a study she did about the anxiety that can prevent intergroup dialogue. Aries has found that a major obstacle to intergroup dialogue is fear of saying something wrong or unintentionally offensive when discussing charged and sensitive topics such as race or socioeconomic class.

“Two-thirds of the white students in my study and half the black students said they’d wished they had more conversations about race when they were here,” Aries said. “They felt that they missed an opportunity.”

Aries also found that when students were asked why they didn’t have these conversations, they said they were afraid of what might happen if they did have conversations about race.

“It’s because it’s anxiety provoking,” Aries said. “They can go badly, people can get very heated and angry. People can say things that offend each other, unwittingly.”

According to Aries, teaching community members cultural competency, empathy and listening skills can create the more safe and accepting environment needed to foster and enable communication across differences to take place. A model for one currently exists as the Intergroup Dialogue Program at the University of Michigan.

The committee is also focusing on how members of the community reconcile the many diverse sides of their individual identities.

“How do we create balance between all the diverse aspects of ourselves?” Cobham-Sander said. “If diversity were just about putting the reds next to the blues next to the yellows next to the greens, then, we wouldn’t have really changed much about those individual things. It’s more about allowing people to explore the complexities of their own diverse experience.”

In order to reach this goal, the committee has brainstormed three essential ways that the College might support and incentivize community building through diversity.

First, Cobham-Sander said the committee had the idea of holding the College and all its members accountable for their actions by creating a system of incentives to support and promote actions of diversity. The need for a built-in system of accountability would force the College to be active in fostering diversity in all of its forms.

“We’ve got to find ways to promote that this is a value across the institution, not just so say, ‘Oh, this is nice’ when something good happens by accident, but to really say, ‘If you work towards this, you’re going to be rewarded, if you don’t work towards this, we’re going to hold you accountable,’” Cobham-Sander said.

Second, the committee recognizes that the physical layout of the College is an integral part of its image and that the layout of Amherst’s buildings can help communicate the College’s commitment to diversity.

“We’ve got to be able to look at the way that the buildings are laid out, what is next to what, what separates different functions and people in different groups from each other,” Cobham-Sander said.

She added that the images that people on the outside looking in associate with Amherst “tell them something about what the institution values.”

For example, Cobham-Sander posed the hypothetical, what would happen if the College moved the Multicultural Resource Center closer to the social dorms?

“We think of those two groups as completely separate. What would happen if we laid space out that means that those two groups of students had to communicate?” said Cobham-Sander.

According to Cobham-Sander, what often happens in situations of diversity without a strong sense of community is that people think “they need to fight for resources to defend their space.”

Cobham-Sander said the committee sees a strong community that respects and regards all people as equally important in helping to change the dominant view away from the idea that “good fences build good neighbors.”

Badri agrees with the inherent tension between belonging and difference.

“Diversity and community is interesting because those are essentially two things that are put at odds with one another,” she said. “That you forgo a sense of community because you include diversity or that diversity makes it harder to have a sense of community. That a homogenous set of people are more likely to easily form a community than a diverse set of people because they have more in common, more shared interest.”

Cobham-Sander said the committee recognizes that this is a difficult problem for the college to get past, yet the only path towards communication, interaction, and understanding between different groups lies in getting past this problem.
“It’s going to be messy,” Cobham-Sander said. “But as people learn that power is not just in one place anymore, but that power is shared, things are going to change.”