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Town hall meeting takes ‘pulse’ of campus

By Katie Hee '14

October 3, 2013

Nearly 500 members of the Hamilton community convened in the Alumni Gym last Thursday for a “Meaningful Dialogue About Race.” After a week of heated discussions that flooded email inboxes, took over Facebook and spilled over to Martin’s Way, participants gathered together to share ideas about how to frame and conduct a powerful, substantive and effective discussion about race.

Thursday’s meeting was instituted to replace the first installment of the “Real Talk Dialogue Series.” Cancelled following allegations that the program promoted segregation, this first meeting of a three-part series was intended to gather students to discuss the issue of internalized racism. Backlash to this event and the resulting contentious campus environment demonstrated the need for an open community forum on promoting positive discourse on the topic of race.

In an email addressed to faculty, students and administrators, Director of Diversity and Inclusion Amit Taneja, outlined his vision for this discussion, “I invite all interested members of the community to come to a re-envisioned dialogue…to address two central questions:  What does a meaningful dialogue about race look like? How can we best structure such a dialogue? Together we can figure out how to proceed in ways that make clear the inclusiveness of our community and our collective commitment to equity, understanding and mutual respect.”

Dean of Students Nancy Thompson echoed his desire for constructive discussion. In anticipation of the event, Thompson sent an email to the entire campus community addressing the situation on the hill. She stressed the importance of an environment that is welcoming to all students.

“This principle is not up for debate: Every student is a cherished member of this community and Hamilton must be a place where every student has an equal chance to thrive.  We may disagree about many things in the course of these challenging conversations, but if we can agree on this one principle, we will be an even better community,” she wrote.

With attendees filling every chair, bleacher seat and floor space, President Stewart opened the dialogue by welcoming students to view the meeting as an opportunity to evaluate the status quo with a critical eye. She acknowledged the need for an open forum before Taneja introduced the rules for the town hall-style event. Focusing on respectful discourse and a need to actively listen, he urged students to share their reactions to the events of the past week.

As the microphone was passed around the gym, students of all class years and races, as well as professors and administrators, bravely shared their experiences and insights. Many students expressed that they felt threatened and excluded a result of the campus’ contentious atmosphere. Issues of race, they said, had become so polarizing as to isolate, misrepresent and disempower individuals.

The conversation continued for two hours before Taneja suggested reconvening the discussion in small groups in Commons. He urged students to continue the discourse as the community moves forward. Students pointed out that both formal and informal conversations about race occur regularly across campus but often within small groups. These outlets provide open doors for discussion but the meetings are only attended by a small portion of the community.

Students worry that the discussion will not continue. “I think the conversation on race at Hamilton has stalled,” said Mark Parker-Magyar ’15. “The students that recognized race as an issue at Hamilton before Thursday’s discussion will continue their discussions on race’s impact on the Hamilton community, and the students that were largely apathetic, uninformed, or did not believe race was an issue at Hamilton before the discussion have simply continued with their lives.”

Student Assembly President Anthony Jackson ’15 is more hopeful, “the energy exhibited last week can be put towards healthy, constructive conversation. I know that this will have to be done in small groups, and will be working to organize and facilitate some of these discussions.”

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