Leading Democratic Dialogue on ‘Race in Our Space’

By Karena Cronin and Kevon Haughton

Yesterday, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Americans were asked to recommit to achieving the promise of our democracy for all. Through Vote Everywhere, The Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF) is proud to partner with higher education institutions across the nation that advance MLK’s vision for equality and justice on an ongoing basis. East Carolina University (ECU) is one such partner.

Following the 2016 election, the ECU Campus Team decided that they needed to do more to encourage students to get involved in politics. What was their strategy?  The ECU’s Campus Team launched a series called ‘Race in Our Space” (RIOS) which looked at the intersections of race, politics, education, and social groups. Research by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Learning at Tufts University (also a Vote Everywhere partner) finds that curriculum and co-curricular opportunities for political dialogue are key to enhancing political engagement among the student body.

Below, Alex Dennis, Assistant Director for Curricular Programs, Center for Leadership & Civic Engagement, East Carolina University and Vote Everywhere Campus Champion, answers some questions about rolling out the series. We hope his answers will help to inform and inspire others in the Vote Everywhere Champion Network undertaking similar conversations.

Could you please provide a brief overview of East Carolina University’s ‘Race in our Space’ Series?

Race in our Space was born after the 2016 elections at the suggestion of the Vote Everywhere Ambassadors Haley Creef (Team Leader) and Erick Jenkins (Ambassador now Alumnus). The three-part series focused on Race in Social Groups, Race in Education, and Race in Politics was rolled out during Fall of 2017 and engaged approximately 100 students. The Campus Team worked with professors, staff as well as students with the relevant expertise to develop a curriculum and learning outcomes for each event.  For example, the Race in Politics dialogue explored the impact of gerrymandering in North Carolina, recent upward and downward trends in voting among African-Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Why is it important to have tough conversations about race, like Race in Our Space?

It is important to have tough conversations about race on a college campus because it is an issue that affects our campus climate and our society as a whole.  I believe it is important for colleges and universities to create spaces and events where students, faculty, and staff feel safe and empowered to discuss their own experiences on and off campus as it relates to issues such as race.  If we don’t discuss these issues, we won’t be able to bridge barriers and take down the walls of injustice, prejudice, and discrimination.  If we can get students to understand what it is like to walk in another’s shoes then we can begin to help develop empathy and understanding.   We must talk about these issues in order to overcome them.

What are some of the strategies that you used to create safe spaces for people to have these conversations and dialogues?

The most basic strategy that we have used to create safe spaces for our students, faculty, and staff to have these types of discussions is to ensure that our panel is diverse and representative of the full spectrum of the issue at hand.  We also begin every Race in Our Space with a short discussion around the idea of mutual respect and civil discourse.  We lay out the ground rules of not talking over someone else, raising your hand to speak and being called on by one of our AGF moderators, keeping an open mind and listening to understand – not just to respond.  We also ensure that our panelists are modeling the same kind of behavior.  We also tell our audience that people will be sharing their own experiences, opinions, and beliefs and that it is okay not to agree with someone but it is important to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.

Have you received pushback from the students or faculty about these conversations? If so, how have you dealt with the opposition?

Anytime you fill a room with diverse people and ask them to discuss issues such as race or politics, there is the chance that someone will disagree or feel like their ideas are being attacked.  We have had some tough conversations but overall our assessment results show that most students feel safe and respected in the environment that we create.  We encourage participants and attendees to continue conversations after the event is over because that is how lasting change will occur.  Again, we stress that it is important for everyone to feel that they are heard, even if you disagree.  I also believe it is important to have the support of your administration and I am fortunate to have the full support of our administration in Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement and in Student Affairs at East Carolina University.  Our administration feels that conversations and events such as these are important regardless of any opposition.

How successful do you think these conversations and dialogues have been for changing campus social climate/race relations on campus?

It is hard to judge how successful events such as Race in Our Space have been at changing our campus climate but I can tell you that the number of students attending events such as this have increased and that our students are engaged.  Showing up and being engaged is the first step for any major change and I feel that we are on the right track.

What advice do you have for other Campus Champions who would like to start having these dialogues about race on their campuses?

My best advice is to make sure that your administration is behind you and will support you, then just plan the event!  Setup the proper ground rules, ensure a diverse panel, market to diverse groups on campus and let the discussion begin.  Oh, and food helps too!

We understand that you are planning another series called Politics in Our Space (PIOS)? What themes, if any, will you carry over from last year into this year? 

The idea for Politics in Our Space grew out of our final dialogue on Race in Politics. We just finished our first semester of Politics in Our Space and we covered three major issues:  Healthcare, Immigration, and Gun Control.  Our format is essentially the same for PIOS as RIOS, we recruit a diverse, informed panel of 4-6 students, faculty/staff and we brainstorm questions to begin the discussion surrounding the topic.  We go over the same ground rules as RIOS and we allow for participants to ask questions and become part of the larger discussion.  One difference was that we created an “Issue Guide” for each of the PIOS issues so that students could see the major parties stance on the issues being discussed.  We included the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian and Green parties.  Since our students tend to be issue-driven voters we thought this would be a good way for them to begin thinking about partisan politics.

Stay tuned for a more in-depth article on Politics in our Space at East Carolina University later this month.