By Stuart C. Babington, PhD
In response to the turbulent events and divisive political rhetoric of the spring and summer, Spring Hill College (SHC) faculty, staff and students gathered twice during the fall semester for reflection and open discussions concerning racial harmony and immigration.
Violence in Minnesota, Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., and harsh rhetoric communicated at political rallies prompted a group of SHC faculty and staff to discuss opportunities for students to address their concerns. The group chose a format that included a brief video, followed by table discussions led by faculty, staff and student leaders.
“It was the rhetoric of the (presidential) campaign that led us last spring to start thinking that we needed to do more than sponsor a debate, but look at some of the major issues in greater depth,” said Kathleen Orange, PhD, a political science professor at SHC. “The police shootings, demonstrations and then shooting of police officers over the summer made beginning with race obvious.”
“We also have a racially diverse student body and we have never had the formal opportunity for an open exchange between our students,” Orange continued. “Immigration was the next most inflammatory issue so we took that up next. These are also issues that involve the commitment of the college to Christian values, especially that of the dignity of the human person.”
Faculty from the school’s Department of Communication Arts compiled broadcast footage from news events over the summer, creating six-minute films intended to give context for the discussions on racial harmony and immigration. SHC’s president, Christopher Puto, PhD, introduced each film to the students and reviewed for participants the ground rules for civil discourse. In each event, he made it clear that the goal was not to change minds, but rather to identify areas of agreement among the participants. Demetrius Semien, PhD, who teaches sociology and criminology at SHC, had previously briefed students, staff and faculty about how to moderate such discussions
“The technique of film, brief presentation of the question, and then table discussion led the participants to be much more involved and satisfied than they are when they just come and hear a panel or a speaker,” Orange said. “We were very lucky to have such good films on such short notice and the excellent moderation and support of our president. We were also fortunate that Demetrius had trained table facilitators already.”
Each event drew between 75 and 100 students, with participants discussing racial/ethnic unrest, stereotypes and what individuals can do to correct injustices. One student at each table recorded notes from the discussions, with special emphasis on areas of common ground. At the conclusion of each event, Orange compiled the table notes, searched for common themes, and then made a final report available for faculty, staff and students.
“The comments on the racial exchanges were overwhelmingly positive,” Orange said. “Participants said they felt free to express themselves and that they learned a great deal from one another. Many students at the second one commented that they had never really considered what immigrants go through until they saw the film and participated in the discussions. This is why we did this: so students have a chance to examine the stereotypes being flung around and look at them from another point of view.”
President Puto told participants in the immigration discussion that as a Jesuit institution, these are exactly the kind of topics students, staff and faculty should be examining. “Giving students an opportunity to have deep, respectful discussions on such relevant but sensitive topics brings our mission from the classroom powerfully into their lives. Observing their constructive engagement was amazing,” he said later.
Rosalie Carpenter, SHC’s vice president of student affairs, served as a table facilitator at one of the events. “I think that being an institution of higher education gives us an opportunity to share and talk and increase perspective,” she told a student journalist. She added that these conversations mean “learning... open-mindedness...growth... perspective...sometimes frustration and disappointment and not being able to solve everything.”
Stuart Babington, PhD, is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication Arts at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala