Faculty forming Sustained Dialogue group
By Katherine Ward
One faculty member never questioned her mixed background until her classmate accused her of being “whitewashed.” That made her re-evaluate her own identity and wonder if she had “decolonized” and question if this was wrong.
Another professor discovered that all of the “advantages” he’d had in his homogenous world were actually limitations to the profound learning experience he might have gained through exposure to people of different races, gender and sexual preference.
Still another member of the faculty was once forced to file a sexual harassment case against her corporate boss and endure a lengthy and extremely difficult lawsuit. She pushed the boundaries of the definitions of sexual harassment at the time, which the courts later upheld in other cases. Her boss hired her under false pretenses, then began harassing her — yelling at and verbally excoriating her on the basis of her gender. She won the case, but was forced to sign a gag order and was still considered a “problem” because she had changed the status quo.
Everyone has a story. That’s why these faculty members are forming a new group, starting next semester, in which their colleagues can articulate how they feel about issues of diversity — personally and professionally — in an effort to improve the climate at the University. The group is an outgrowth of other faculty collaborations.
Two-and-a-half years ago, multicultural education professor Bob Covert, together with John Alexander, manager of instructional technology, and Rachel Saury, director of the Center for Instructional Technology, began the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Diversity. The group was trying to raise an interest in diversity issues among
University faculty and create a group of people who had multicultural concerns and wanted to gather and talk about how to improve them. At the time, there were about 20 interested members — enough to begin. Since then, the group has grown to about 60 members, some of whom serve on the Commission for Diversity and Equity, formed a year ago by President John T. Casteen III.
The ad hoc group has worked on several issues since its inception, including creating an executive summary from the large number of racial issues studied by various groups; producing a list of proposed uses for the 7,379-acre Morven Farm, a gift to the University valued at more than $45 million; and, more recently, composing a letter of sympathy and support in response to fourth-year student Amey Adkins, the victim of a racial incident this year.
Now the group is reaching out in a different way, taking its lead from students. The faculty group is embracing Sustained Dialogue, a process that brings together different types of people to open lines of communication among racial groups. U.Va. students formed a Sustained Dialogue group in 2001, which has been very effective. The new faculty group is set to begin next semester.
“The goal is to begin to open conversation among faculty about our own personal experiences and issues,” Saury said. “John [Alexander] and I feel that kind of personal work is important in order to do activist work in the community.”
The purpose of this Sustained Dialogue group is for faculty members to gather and discuss issues of diversity and how to improve communication among the University community. In particular, the effort is to create small groups whose members will really get to know one another and allow them to open up about their own personal concerns.
“A lot of faculty would jump to the politically correct answer,” Alexander said. “This is not an effort to change the world — think of it as an invitation to explore personally with each other in a safe and more secure environment.”
Of the three founding members — Alexander and Saury included — just one will have prior experience with Sustained Dialogue. Daisy Rodriguez, assistant dean for Asian/Asian Pacific American students, was the only faculty member involved in the student’s dialogue sessions — a group that is similar to one she was involved with during her undergraduate years at Indiana University, called Conversations On Race. She plans to use her experience and observations to aid as a moderator for the faculty group.
Members of the group must be committed to it, each of the founding members stressed. According to its Web site, “Sustained Dialogue is not an easy process, just as generating racial change is not a matter to be taken lightly. The process requires time, energy and patience. Participants must be willing to expose themselves to criticism and share their beliefs in full honesty, and most of all, they must be willing to change, for no one who enters the process emerges the same person.”
The group is relying on word of mouth to rouse interest throughout the faculty. They are trying to find faculty members who are willing to make a commitment, even if it’s only to meet once every two weeks for 90-minute sessions.
“I think that sometimes students wonder if faculty members really care [about diversity issues] — they’re worried about making tenure, doing research, etc., so they have no time for this,” Rodriguez said. An active Sustained Dialogue faculty group could dispel such notions and be quite
The faculty group has the potential to produce significant change and improve the entire surrounding community over time, said Saury and Alexander, who teach a class together that stresses the importance of diversity and multiculturalism.
Sustained Dialogue “is consistent with what John and I do in class,” Saury said. “People with different backgrounds can get over their ‘stuff’ by talking and sharing. Even the kindest people have stereotypical thoughts and ideas — if they express their assumptions, they can get reactions and learn from them.”
The group plans to begin at the onset of spring semester. Members can only join at the beginning of the term. The goal is to grow from each session and learn more about members of the group — if someone is new, they will have no point of reference. For more information, contact Daisy Rodriguez at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rachel Saury at es4n@Virginia.edu.
2004 by the Rector and Visitors