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Ryan Piurek
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Last modified: Tuesday, March 4, 2003

IUB Conversations on Race program receives national award

Honor given to campus-based programs working to build communities that embrace all people

NOTE: Students and campus community members can sign up for the March 8-9 Conversations on Race retreat by going to Participation is free and includes transportation, lodging and food.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- They take place late in the evening. In the dorm room. At the club. In the lounge.

Late-night conversations -- about real issues and concerns. A chance to say whatever is on your mind, to lay everything on the table, to get something off your chest. No fear of opening up to the man or woman sitting next to you.

In the United States, discussions of race and racism have often been relegated to the Letterman-Leno hour, since the topic was deemed too hot to touch during the daytime. For many Americans, it's much easier and safer to keep quiet on these issues, especially if they feel uncomfortable and vulnerable in speaking about them.

For effectively shedding light on the issues of race and racism and creating an environment where it's safe for campus community members to reflect on and express their personal experiences with these issues, the Conversations on Race (CoR) program at Indiana University Bloomington has been awarded the 2003 Voice of Inclusion Award by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA). The award is given annually to two university-based initiatives nationwide that have contributed to making their campus communities a welcoming environment for all people. The Conversations on Race program and the University of Vermont's "Voices Series" will be recognized at an awards luncheon on March 31 during the ACPA's annual convention in Minneapolis, Minn.

"One of the most difficult things to do is to talk about race," said Mark Bryson, a diversity educator in the IUB Office of Diversity Education and one of the program's key supporters. "This program provides a way for individuals to step out of their comfort zones, to ask difficult questions in a respectful way and to engage in a dialogue about these very important issues."

Conversations on Race is a five-week program held each semester that brings together diverse members of the university community for the purpose of improving the community's racial climate. Participants are encouraged to discuss their personal experiences of race and racism, to consider multiple viewpoints and, ultimately, to develop strategies for making their communities more inclusive and respectful of others. The conversations, which last two hours each week, take place in small groups of approximately eight to 10 participants and are co-facilitated by a peer and a faculty or staff member. Sessions include hands-on activities, group dialogue, videos, readings and a two-to-three-minute reflection period.

"I like to call these sessions 'late night conversations,'" said Doug Bauder, coordinator of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Office of Student Support Services at IUB and one of the program's founders. "I'm talking about those great conversations that happen late at night when you're hanging out with your peers. We want to give people permission to have these types of conversations all of the time."

The Conversations on Race program grew out of a series of discussions of race called "study circles," which began in Bloomington in 1998 in response to the distribution of hate literature in the community. In 2000, the program, which galvanized hundreds of community members against the forces of racism, was renamed "Conversations on Race" and introduced into residential life on the Bloomington campus.

Barry Magee, assistant director for diversity education in Residential Programs and Services at IUB, faced the challenge of making the program more student-friendly in an extremely hectic, "no-time-to-chat" campus environment.

"We're all so busy," said Magee, who helps teach an eight-week "Conversations on Race" class in the IUB School of Education. "But as soon as we don't have anything to do and it gets quiet, we become afraid for some reason. With this program we've helped people build the skills and comfort level to open a dialogue during these quiet moments."

Magee said that many of the students who have participated in the Conversations on Race program have developed a better understanding of themselves as racial beings and a deep appreciation of living in a diverse community. He also believes the program has empowered students to tackle issues that they didn't have the knowledge of and the courage to deal with.

Sara Cole, a Ph.D. student in human performance in the Department of Applied Health Science, participated in the spring 2001 program and has since co-facilitated two other sessions. She also plans to attend a Conversations on Race spring retreat this weekend (March 8-9) at Bradford Woods in Martinsville, Ind., and she hopes one day to teach multiculturalism and diversity in the classroom.

Cole, who credits her grandparents with teaching her to respect each person regardless of his or her race or ethnicity, said she wants to be a part of the learning process. "No matter how many times I go through the program, I always find out something about myself. (The program) gives us all the time and comfort of being in a safe place to engage in this sort of inward reflection," she said.

The Conversations on Race program continues to grow -- from 132 participants in 2000-01 to 172 in 2001-02 to a projected 242 in the current academic year, including a significant number of international students. Bauder sees the increased participation of international students as a positive development in light of racial issues raised by the tragedy of September 11.

Bauder also credited the collaborative effort between individuals such as Daisy Rodriguez, an IUB diversity education specialist who prepared the ACPA award application, and offices around campus, including Residential Programs and Services, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and the Commission on Multicultural Understanding, with helping to make the program a success. He is hopeful that additional segments of the university will catch on to what has become an illuminating experience for everyone who gets involved with the program.

"Somehow we've managed to capture that late-night conversation feeling," Bauder said. "I have to believe that a lot of the students are here because they want to grow a little bit. They see it as a safe way to talk about issues they haven't been allowed to talk about before. For that, we should be proud."

Students and campus community members can sign up for the March 8-9 Conversations on Race retreat by going to Participation is free and includes transportation, lodging and food.