Raja Gopal Bhatar, diversity, justice and belonging strategist and first fellow on racial justice Interreligious youth core The Interfaith America Initiative spoke with members of the Ithaca College community about the inclusion of justice, inclusion, and belonging to the learning environment.
The event, which took place on February 14, was part of “Difficult Dialogues: Cultivating a Culture of Belonging” SThe symposium is an event designed to facilitate the discussion of complex and controversial topics by bringing invited speakers to campus to discuss complex topics. Bhatar’s work combines qualitative and quantitative approaches to intersectoral identity with a focus on the experiences of LGBTQ +, immigrants, first-generation students, international students and people of color in higher education.
Interim Vice-Chancellor Melanie Stein made the introduction, noting the relevance of the conversation as educators struggle with the effects of COVID-19 on classroom learning.
“Our campus commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is clearly reflected in our strategic plan and is one of the priorities identified by the senior management team this school year,” Stein said. “Recent events on campus and nationally show that inclusiveness is not yet accepted by all. As educators, our classes remain one of our most powerful tools for defending the DEI [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion]».
The conversation goes after the opening of the two swastikas depicted inside buildings on campus. Interim President La Gern Cornish condemned the first swastika email to the campus community on February 4th. Upon discovery of the second swastika the Office of Public Safety and Administration directed alerts February 8 to the campus community.
Instead of sending out newsletters, Bhatar said it was equally important for colleges to keep people informed of the history behind important issues. –– as a swastika – allows growth, opportunity and progress.
“What are we doing to get a proper education?” Said Bhatar. “What is the real story of the symbol and other symbols we use, and how [does] which actually transform and make people feel uncomfortable? ”
Bhatar stressed that much remains to be done in terms of cultivating a culture of belonging, in order to respect the process, growth and progress that will take place along the way.
“What concept do we want to promote and how do we deliberately define, redefine and leverage our shared commitment to these values, and are we all on the same page or not?” Said Bhatar.
Bhatar asked the audience several questions, such as which person they think of most and which they do not. The purpose of the exercises, they said, was to make people think about what it means to feel affiliated on college campuses.
“I think it’s important for us to recognize that importance is an active process, and marginalization is an active process,” Bhatar said. “We consider them automatic, unintentional experiences, but are often based on where and what we do.”
One of the ways Bhatar encouraged this was the interaction of teachers with students. They said there is a need to find ways to better support students who are already studying on the college will naturally help create more diversity by attracting students.
“Instead of saying we should deliver them to the door, should you think about how they are supported? How do they thrive? [Are they] important on campus and how they are marginalized, ”Bhater said.
Bhatar also said what while diversity is the basis for colleges, equity is a choice that requires deliberate work to ensure it can be met.
“I believe we need to be committed to justice … and be prepared to challenge the status quo when everyone gets the same,” Bhatar said. “This is not the world we live in, and our path and our role as educators when you transform should be more just.”
One attendee commented on the need to provide more important resources for students to accept equity.
“What we see in the classroom is the difference between the first generation and students from several generations,” they said. “This relationship … is such a big part of our work.”
Bhatar posed to the audience several key questions that should be considered in academic work: ask whose perspectives are not on the table, what is your own structure and how you can contribute to the community guided by a framework of justice.
“While we think about what it means to do this work … I believe that leadership with an intention that matches the impact as much as possible – impact – is not always what is intended – it does not deny any impact or intention, but it is a mixture of both, ”Bhatar said. “Our job is to coordinate more closely the impact we want to have so that our intentions can be transformed in our community.”