Energetic Town Hall meetings underscore YDS community’s commitment to greater diversity and inclusivity
The thorny issues of diversity and inclusivity headlined the agenda at two recent Town Hall meetings at Yale Divinity School, each session exuding a palpable energy that undersored the YDS community’s commitment to making the campus a setting where all are welcome.
Feb. 1 marked the first YDS Town Hall Meeting of 2012, and it was no disappointment. Entitled “Diversity and Inclusivity: Race, Ethnicity and Class at YDS,” the gathering was held in the Common Room before a huge student and faculty turnout. Every seat was taken, and the walls were totally lined when Student Body President Jared Gilbert took the floor to moderate a discussion on some very difficult topics.
About a week before the meeting, Gilbert had prompted the YDS community with three questions to get the conversation started.
Benny Chan, a first-year M.A.R. student, responded to the first question, which asked “In what ways does YDS—in the classroom, in worship, and in community—encourage and honor diversity and promote an attitude and environment of inclusivity? In what ways do we still need to grow?”
Chan described his academic experience at YDS as quite positive, saying he feels respected and welcomed among colleagues. At the same time, Chan expressed misgivings about the tendency of what he called “ethnic clustering,” suggesting that the YDS community can make a greater effort to facilitate dialogue and engagement among minority groups. He also voiced concern that racial “cliques” can be mistaken for isolation by those of different races.
Latoya Brown, an M.A.R. student who graduates in May, said she feels that student-led services in Marquand Chapel highlight YDS diversity at its best. On a more critical note, she answered Gilbert’s second question, “How have you experienced inclusion or exclusion in this community?” by saying that, as an African American, she has noticed how difficult it is to have direct conversations around diversity within the classroom. Brown suggested the possibility of having both faculty and students undergo intercultural-training programs that instruct people how to discuss difficult topics like race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality.
After Chan and Brown got the conversation started, Gilbert opened his third question to the audience: “Do we talk about race, ethnicity and class openly at YDS, and how do we deal with the struggle of learning to talk about it?” Mixed reactions followed.
A number of students said they are hesitant to speak directly about race or ethnicity out of a fear of retaliation and being misunderstood. Graduating M.Div. student Alex Souto suggested that members of minority groups need honest feedback rather than affirmation of whatever they might say, an idea that drew some positive response from the audience. Souto also expressed the need to give international students more time to talk about ideas when their native-tongue is not English
Some students complained of feeling stereotyped because of how they look or speak. Graduating African American students Vincent Stokes and Craig Ford both acknowledged that their time at YDS has been isolating and, in many cases, ostracizing.
Other speakers suggested that worship styles of minory groups are perceived as entertainment rather than as opportunities to learn. Others felt that the YDS motto ‘Preparing leaders for service in church and world” is disingenous since not one YDS faculty member is of Hispanic or Latino descent.
Leonard Curry, a second-year African American M. Div. student, reached out a hand for allies saying, “I don’t always want to have ‘the diversity conversation’ all the time because it’s exhausting and frustrating—but then I remember that Jesus didn’t want to go to the cross either.”
Stephanie Wong, another second-year M. Div. student, suggested that diversity and inclusiveness are related to fellowship. To increase the occasions and locations of fellowship, Wong advocated for the construction of “fellowship spaces” on the YDS campus where interaction across race, ethnicities, and classes is more easily accessible.
As might be expected, one hour and one Town Hall meeting proved not to be enough time to produce any comprehensive plan about how YDS can become a more diverse and inclusive community. Many of the participants at the Feb. 1 session felt the meeting lacked closure, as if the conversation was just beginning, so Gilbert arranged for a follow-up Town Hall Meeting on Feb. 27.
The second meeting began with an invocation from Dean Harry Attridge and an introduction by second-year M. Div. student Tyrone McGowan. Unlike the first meeting, where students took turns standing up, passing the microphone, and addressing the audience, the second Town Hall Meeting consisted of “break-out” sessions in which nine faculty members paired with nine student leaders to lead conversations with nine random groups of students.
Converations were directed at two questions: “What are the barriers in you or others that sometimes make it difficult to relate to persons of other races, cultures, or class at YDS?” and “What would have to happen so that people from different backgrounds could more easily work through their understandings of how race, ethnicity, and class affect day-to-day situations here at YDS?” The faculty-student dynamic was, in part, meant to model how both can have a serious conversation on a horizontal instead of vertical level of power, where students and faculty can learn from each other.
The real challenge for participants was to work on concrete solutions to barriers that each of the nine groups identified—many of them institutional problems that students have only limited power to affect, such as the need for greater diversity among faculty and the student body. Part of the reason faculty were invited to participate was the recognition that the institutional side of YDS has to be included in any solutions that require institutional change.
Despite the pronounced reduction in student and faculty turn out—the second meeting drew about 70 people, nearly 100 fewer than the first meeting—Gilbert said he felt the general reception to the second meeting was “definitely positive.”
Gilbert’s over-arching goal of the Town Hall Meetings was to encourage the YDS community to discover a common language to address issues of race, ethnicity, and class—a difficult task because these emotionally and socially charged areas are often left unspoken and unnamed.
“I think we’re really creating a good ground and good fabric to work from,” said Gilbert, who is arranging a final, third part to what might be termed a “Town Hall Trilogy.”
The point of the first two meetings was to get the conversation started, to get students more comfortable with having tough conversations, and to get people talking and people listening. That process has clearly begun. With that, supporters of the drive toward inceased diversity and inclusivity at YDS believe they have reason for hope.