Students share stories to build community

All+individuals+who+participated+in+the+Inclusion+Experience+promised+to+keep+personal+information+discussed+confidential+after+the+event.+%28Photo%3A+Trevor+Squire%2FCity+College+News%29

All individuals who participated in the Inclusion Experience promised to keep personal information discussed confidential after the event. (Photo: Trevor Squire/City College News)

By Alison Johnson/[email protected]
Staff Reporter

Students queer and straight, Muslim, black and white, male and female met in small groups all over the Helland Center to talk about what Director of Student Life, Tara Martinez, called “identity experiences that make us more complicated” one Friday this semester.

Of the event, “Inclusion Experience: Everyone has a Story,” some of the students said the small groups helped them connect to others from different backgrounds, another student said the event had helped him see unacknowledged advantages in his own life.

This event was a positive, forward-looking, solution-focused attempt to repair issues on campus that many avoid until they become impossible to ignore. These avoided issues are around various identities such as race, religion, and sexual orientation.

An example of such an issue is the rescinded reprimand of professor Shannon Gibney because of a controversy about a classroom discussion of structural racism. The college issued the reprimand approximately a year ago and it was rescinded just before the fall semester.

Director of Student Life, Tara Martinez, said the goal of the day was “to help people get beyond walking down the hall and passing by all these faces you might see and not really get to know each other, and to make connections we hope will be longer lasting.”

Michael Elliot, a facilitator for the training, said the day was meant to build inclusiveness and equity. While he said the students who designed the experience had different concerns about life on campus, the event focused on building community rather than exploring divisions.

He said that people live in their own silos. He noted that as children, we break ourselves up by gender and “by 33 [we’re in] very tight little boxes.” He wanted the Inclusion Experience to allow “…diversity, a very broad definition with various connotations, to be vague and open-ended, not just ethnicity, or culture or lack of specific cultural identity other than American.”

Created by students, including Elliot, who had met with Martinez since the summer, the event was held in early November and was designed to help students step out of those “tight little boxes” by learning about each other’s stories to bust stereotypes and build greater community at MCTC. Elliot said that because MCTC is non-residential and many students are older than traditional college age, community has been difficult to achieve.

Early on in the day, facilitators showed the TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, given by Nigerian novelist and essayist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie focuses on her belief that “it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity.”

In addition to watching a TED talk, participants met in small groups for conversation, and again as a large group over a lunch. They also created colorful collages that fit on puzzle pieces. The pieces fit together to form letters and the letters spelled “MCTC Unity.”

Shovkat Metekov, a student who attended the experience said he’d been learning about stereotypes. He said he was blown away by how people categorize. He said he believes it’s important to “explore [each] person — we are all different.” Also, he said that we are different than the stereotypes about us. For instance, “middle class [people] are all different.” Metekov said his primary identity was a Muslim trying to better himself.

Felicia Hamilton, another student who attended the experience, said she found connection and common ground with Asian and Somali women.

“I never realized we were connected. It’s the first step to relationship,” she said.

Hamilton identifies as a black woman. She found that experiences are not always exclusive to one culture, [including] oppressive experiences. In addition she said ageism, sexism and racism are not exclusive.

Dylan Kelly, who identified as a “queer American, a young upper middle-class kid,” said that he doesn’t face discrimination because of race, and that realization was an eye-opening experience.

The MCTC Campus Compliance and Security Report, which is a report mandated by federal law requiring colleges to report crime statistics, listed three bias-motivated crimes involving intimidation-based on national origin in 2013 at the college. No one interviewed who attended this event spoke of specific negative incidents on campus.

While the focus was on how to draw together in positive ways, several students alluded to divisions on campus.

“What surprised me is that some problems I’ve noticed myself, others see too,” Metekov said.

Metekov suggested approaching other students at MCTC to begin conversations, even in the hallways, even when students are absorbed in their phones, even on a superficial level, despite discomfort.

The hope for greater inclusion has not yet ended: in addition to the relationships begun during the experience, two workshops during Student Success Day opened the conversation to more students. Kelly agreed, “I think that MCTC, being as diverse as it is, needs more events like this.”