Faculty and Staff Discuss ‘white privilege’ in Burlington seminar

Illustration by Nicholas Verdirame

Throughout the year, even when classes are not in session, issues around diversity continue to dominate the campus. In response to the needs, 40  faculty, staff and students at St. Michael’s college gather monthly to keep  the conversation  going about the meaning and value of diversity through the city-wide “We All Belong” Program.

In 2012, the city council took it upon themselves to create the City of Burlington Diversity & Equality Strategic Plan. The “We All Belong” Program is just one of the initiatives developed by the Community and Economic Offices of the city of Burlington to embrace diversity, and minimize racial disparities in the community.

Attendees of ‘We All Belong” participate in  group discussions and touch on difficult, and at times, uncomfortable topics which provoked personal reflection among the attendees around the sorts of privilege they do and do not have. The goal is to work toward understanding the presence of discrimination, even when they, themselves are not a witness to it.

“With a one-time workshop, I think it would be hard to really reach the kind of reflection we do when it’s a structured ongoing group of people,” said Joan Wagner, dIrector of community-engaged learning.  Often, the discussions place the members into understanding the uncomfortable aspects of diversity, such as white privilege and unintentional exclusion, while trying to encourage empathy.

“We All Belong,” currently in its third year, works with non-profit organizations, schools, and government offices around Burlington. Representative teams from each organization commit to a year-long program in which they attend retreats and coaching sessions that illustrate strategies and awareness to help reach the goal of diversity within each of their organizations.

In the 2014-2015 year, St. Michael’s College was the only college in the area selected to participate. Last year, 40 St. Michael’s faculty, staff, and students participated in the program, Including 12 cabinet members, such as Dawn Ellinwood, Vice President for Student Affairs, Karen Talentino, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Michael New, Vice President of Human Resources and administrative services.

This year’s team will be both voluntary attendees and community members in which the college suggests should attend. 20 faculty, 20 staff. The college recommends that representatives of each department, especially department directors, participate in the program is order to “set the tone for the department,” as New said.

“We are trying very deliberately to think about how the pool of candidates we bring in for interviews, and those we hire, and the profile of our faculty and staff begin to reflect those of our students.” New said. “You might say it’s important that particularly those who directly impact students, whether that’s faculty or student life would probably be the areas we really want to focus on first, but that’s not to minimize, at all, that those of us who work at staff function like human resources or finance or Information Technology shouldn’t as well.”

“It was a hard, but amazing experience,” Ellinwood says. The goal of the college’s involvement in the program is not directly to increase diversity of the student body, but to both create a safe, welcoming environment and to teach students the value of diversity.

“A college campus is a microcosm of society’” said Dawn Ellinwood, vice president for student affairs, and active member on the “We All Belong” committee, adding that the goal of the efforts is not directly to increase diversity. “This is about every single person who joins our community having the best experience while on this campus.”