Thorny campus-climate issues addressed head on at Summit

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 1:17pm

At George Washington University in D.C., a student posted a photo on Snapchat of two sorority members holding a banana peel with the caption, “I’m 1/16 black.”

At Northwestern University in Chicago, a tenured professor is a well-known Holocaust denier.

At San Francisco State, the president of the university issued a public apology for comments he made about Zionists and whether or not they are welcomed on campus.

As is happening at universities across the nation, many of the campuses represented by student leaders at USC Shoah Foundation’s second-annual Intercollegiate Diversity Congress Summit earier this month grappled with some of the touchiest topics in campus life.

A principal aim of the Summit from Sept. 7-9 was to give the 20 student leaders who attended tools to address campus-climate issues in ways that bring about positive change, and promote diversity and inclusion.

It was a rigorous two-and-a-half days of programming, including several workshops on diversity and inclusion, a demo with one of the Institute’s interactive testimonies, an IWitness training seminar, a tour of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and a session to develop their campus action plans.

On the first day, after learning a bit about USC Shoah Foundation’s mission and resources, the student leaders had a chance to share stories about controversial issues on their campuses, as well as their reasons for signing up for the Summit.

Isaac Obioma said he is the second-ever non-white student-body president at West Virginia University.

“There’s actually a lot of diverse voices and diverse people on our campus,” he said. “The issue we run into, though, is: We’ve done a great job of assembling a diverse team. Then what? … How do we get those people at a predominantly white institution to come and care and engage with us?”

At San Francisco State University, apathy isn’t the problem, said Garrick Wilhelm, a vice president in the campus’s student government body.

“Everybody has their passion and what their social justice mission is – it’s important to them what their mission is -- but nobody can reach across the aisle and include anybody else,” said Wilhelm, who returned to his education after a career in the tech industry.

Wilhelm said the spirited culture stems from a long tradition of political activism at the campus.

 “I want to find a way to get people including each other -- to be able to talk to each other,” he said.

Tense relations between Palestinian- and Israeli-supporting student groups came up several times.

At one campus, the topic of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to pressure universities to boycott Israel due to its involvement on the Gaza Strip was so fraught that the student senate decided to cast ballots on a BDS resolution anonymously for fear that individual members would be the next students on campus to be shame-listed on Canary Mission, an anti-BDS website.

At another campus, the black student union has partnered with the Palestinian student union, but reportedly refused to engage in dialogue with Hillel.

How to navigate such turbulent waters? Sara Brown, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at USC Shoah Foundation who organized the Summit, advised students to develop the skill of civil discourse.

“Being able to recognize the humanity of the person across from you, even when they are making you so angry that your blood is boiling -- it’s a difficult skill,” she said.

Brown recommends finding a way to incorporate testimony into campus events, campaigns and programming, as has been done at USC and elsewhere. A scholar with a PhD in comparative-genocide studies, Brown told the group a story about how, when teaching a section on the Holocaust, she’d assigned students a bunch of books. 

“The students were just kind of glazed over,” she said.

During a segment on Kristallnacht, searching for a way to impress upon students the terror of the event, Brown decided to try something new: She showed the class clips of testimony from IWitness.

They watched, for instance, a clip from Ruth Arkiss, whose family lived in an apartment above a store whose glass facade was shattered by hurled bricks on that November night in 1938. The next day, her brothers were carted off to jail for being Jewish.

“All of a sudden, students wanted to know: ‘what happened to them afterwards? Where did they go? Are they living now?’”

Brown scrapped her syllabus midyear and, among other things, brought a Holocaust survivor into the class. Attendance soared.

“Storytelling does something for us,” she said. “It takes these moments in history – these moments and lived experiences and universal themes – it brings it home and turns it into something that we can make sense of ourselves. We can harness that to reach out to our student body.”

Almas Ayaz, previous director of Campus Life and Diversity at Temple University and president of its South Asian Student Society, said the Summit was “amazing.”

“It has given me the ability to see how powerful and effective the use of storytelling and testimonies are in our mission to effect meaningful change,” she said. “I am walking away energized, inspired and motivated to come back to campus and use the tools, network and knowledge that I have acquired to make a meaningful change.”

Rob Kuznia