Conference encourages faculty to engage in diverse conversations

By: Mary-Ellen Davis, Staff Writer

With the goal of providing faculty and staff with strategies that will help them manage difficult conversations regarding topics such as race, sexual identity and political leanings, the Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity hosted the “Courageous Conversations Conference” Friday, Sept. 29.

According to Vice President for Inclusion and Institutional Equity Equity Leah Cox, the idea for the conference came after she learned through meetings with faculty that there used to be a diversity conference for staff members.

“It disappeared and kind of morphed into something for just students,” Cox said. “So, during one of those meetings, one of the issues that came up was can we go back to having a conference for faculty, that it’s so needed, that there’s lots of issues that need to be discussed but nobody’s doing anything.”

Cox believes conferences like these are important to the proper functioning of the University.

“It gives our faculty a chance to have these conversations with their peers…. But Towson’s a big school, there’s stuff going on in multiple places that people don’t know about,” she said.

The conference aimed to give faculty and staff the knowledge and tools to use in the classroom and throughout campus.

“As you get these useful tools or ideas that you share, or initiatives, then you can take it to your department, to your college, to your class, and make the difference at Towson,” Cox said.

The day began at 8 a.m. with breakfast, and was followed by a welcome address by Cox. Cox also introduced the conference’s keynote speaker, Domonic Rollins, a senior diversity and inclusion officer and special assistant to the deans at Harvard University.

“[Rollins] set the perfect tone for faculty to come together to engage in conversations about how to have these conversations in our classrooms,” said Emily Margolis, a clinical assistant professor in the Family Studies and Community Development department.

Margolis said Rollins addressed how people communicate and what each person carries with them into those discussions.

“[Rollins] spoke a lot about considering the context of conversation and creating that space for conversations to take place and being mindful of the context,” Margolis said. “So when, how, who is having the conversation, and what are we bringing to the conversation, maybe unknowingly, and being mindful of the context of the conversations.”

Shohreh Kaynama, the dean of the College of Business and Economics and moderator for two breakout sessions, voiced similar feelings on the passion of Rollins speech, and pointed out Rollins’ discussion of social identity and how someone sees themselves.

“He touched on how do you have courageous conversations in challenging situations, what are the emotions that come to you, how does emotion play a role in the ways that we react to a situation,” Kaynama said.

Following Rollins’ address were breakout sessions, where faculty had the opportunity to pick two from five talks about different aspects of dealing with difficult conversations.

“Participants were very good in terms of being open and talking about examples of implicit and explicit bias, in departments and in relationship with their interactions with students and faculty,” Kaynama said.

Members of the conference were served lunch after the breakout sessions, and had the opportunity to listen to Towson University President Kim Schatzel deliver a welcome speech.

Schatzel talked about how when she first arrived on campus, she went on a “listening tour,” during which she spoke to as many people as possible in 90 days.

“One of the things that I came back with was that I learned that people did not feel welcome on this campus because of either their gender identity, their sexual orientation, their race, their ethnicity, their religion or their level of ableness,” she said.

Schatzel believes that students cannot have a quality educational experience at the University level without a diverse classroom. She pointed out to staff that if some students face obstacles that others do not, it is the job of faculty and staff to eliminate those obstacles to help students realize their fullest potential and have a quality experience.

Other presenters, including assistant professor in the department of elementary education Gary Homana, spoke about different aspects of courageous conversations.

Homana talked about the film he made with Morna McNulty, who is also a professor in the department of elementary education. The film, “Voices of Baltimore,” is set to premiere November 8, and showcases different people talking about their experiences with segregation, racism and Jim Crow laws.

Christa Schmidt, an associate professor in the psychology department, also gave a speech, discussing different tools faculty members could use both in and out of the classroom to facilitate safe spaces for students and staff to talk about challenging issues.

Some of these techniques included think-pair-share groups, getting to know students better at the start of the semester and having more discussion-based classes that force students to pay attention and participate, rather than checking out.

After her presentation, Schmidt had faculty break into different groups to have their own discussions about experiences and identities that challenge people both personally and professionally. The conference closed with a networking reception.

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