“You are my people!” proclaimed keynote speaker William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, to the 275 participants in THINKposium 2017: Exploring Our Stories. The fifth annual University diversity symposium was held at the Friday Center on Sept. 20.
“We all look to Chapel Hill and UNC as a model for diversity and for shaping a better future based on acceptance of all people,” said Ferris, the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History. “I compare it to a patchwork quilt, where many colors and shapes and designs are brought together in a beautiful way. And that’s what this room is all about.”
With his own story of how he came to document so many aspects of the American South, Ferris set the tone for a day that showed how storytelling can lead to empathy, understanding and looking at the day’s issues from a new perspective.
In looking at a slide from a previous presentation about the “cultural web” and how “symbols convey meaning beyond their functional purpose,” Ferris said, “I thought of Silent Sam. This is a debate that is not only upsetting many, many people, but it’s a teaching moment” related to the recently created field of “contested memory” in the study of the South.
“When someone tells you the South lost the war, you say, ‘Wait a minute. Some whites lost the war, blacks were liberated and a lot of whites were too,’” Ferris said. “So let’s talk about whose memory we’re talking about.”
Stories we tell
The symposium also served as an introduction to the newly renamed Office for Diversity and Inclusion (D&I), led by Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity Officer Rumay Alexander, and its new emphasis on being a “resource for everybody.”
“Everybody has a story. Those stories help shape who we are, how we perceive, what we value, the decisions that we make,” said Felicia Washington, vice chancellor for workforce strategy, equity and engagement, in her introduction to the day’s activities.
Alexander’s story was about her unusual first name. She began life as a conventional Renay, but a couple of typos in transcribing her birth certificate transformed her into the more exotic Rumay, a name her mother decided to keep. The unusual name – “They thought, ‘She must be French or Italian’” – opened doors to her that she felt would have been closed if the other person had known she was African American, Alexander said.
Chancellor Carol L. Folt shared how reluctant she had been in her career – as often the only woman scientist in the room – to share aspects of herself that were anything less than “triple professional.”
But Folt distinguished herself in the University’s search for a leader when she talked about who she was and where she came from. “That was so hard. I get goosebumps when I think about it,” she said. “In the end, for this job, at this place, there was nothing more important than trying to be a human in that job.”
Other stories throughout the day ranged from the very personal to global. Richard Watkins, program coordinator of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program, shared his story about how he achieved his doctorate by “standing on the shoulders” of a grandfather with a high school diploma and a father with a master’s degree. Allison Schlobohm, clinical assistant professor of management and corporate communication at Kenan-Flagler, told the audience about her discovery that talking about diversity was more uncomfortable for students in a business school setting.
In a lunchtime activity, attendees at the same table shared “aha!” moments from their own lives. Many of the participants chattered happily and shared chuckles about their experiences. But at one table, two women who had been strangers only moments before got so caught up in these personal narratives that, at the end of the exercise, they wiped away tears and gave each other a hug.
Stories to lead change
While listening to stories was a key part of the day’s activities, attendees also learned how this kind of sharing can be used to transform the workplace in a workshop called StoryLeading: How to Engage Our Narratives Toward Inclusion. Erin Malloy, director of the Center for Faculty Excellence, and Sharbari Dey, assistant director of education and special initiatives in D&I, led participants through the process of choosing a situation that needs to be changed, looking at the issue from many different perspectives and figuring out a strategy and allies to overcome barriers to change.
Creating awareness and institutional change was also a theme at the afternoon’s panel discussion, at which representatives from various student support units shared their concerns.
“Remember that people have multiple identities. How do you find places where you can bring all of who you are?” asked Terri Phoenix, director of the LGBTQ Center. A queer student of color, Phoenix said, may feel uncomfortable in either a predominantly white LGTBQ culture or a community of color not accepting of gay culture. They may have been rejected by their parents or fear violence from others. “Sometimes they’re dealing with issues that students shouldn’t have to deal with.”
Alexander closed with a reminder about D&I’s new name. “When you change the game, you change the name,” she said. “The office is a resource for everybody, not one particular group. This office is for everyone.”