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Members of OHIO, Athens communities engage in conversation on racial dynamics, inequality

On Tuesday, Jan. 20, Ohio University held one of its most successful Campus Conversations yet, drawing members of the OHIO and Athens communities to campus for meaningful discussions on racial dynamics and inequality.

During the event, more than 100 participants, including Ohio University President Roderick J. McDavis and Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl, engaged in active, intellectual and honest conversation on various topics of race and inequality. Some of those topics included “Being Black at OHIO and in Athens,” “The History of Representation and Misrepresentation,” and “Privilege.”

Held from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Baker University Center Ballroom, the Campus Conversation was open to the entire OHIO and Athens communities and was designed to allow participants to ask questions, raise concerns, share their personal experiences and engage in constructive conversations in a safe environment.

“I think it’s critically important for us as a University to provide a space for this kind of dialogue to happen amongst community members,” said Ryan Lombardi, OHIO’s vice president for student affairs. “I think our responsibility is really ensuring that we always have this kind of space available for our community as we work through difficult issues.”

The topic for this Campus Conversation was developed in response to the recent events in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and Staten Island.

“Given the recent incidents of national unrest that have occurred in communities throughout our country and that have impacted people on our campus, we decided we needed to come together as a campus and a community to discuss these issues,” said Jenny Hall-Jones, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, who helped organize and participated in the event. “We decided this was going to be our next campus conversation.”

Each table at the campus conversation had its own topic, as well as a facilitator to help lead the discussion and establish ground rules for the conversation. Participants were asked to follow seven ground rules, including maintaining confidentiality, speaking for oneself, and listening with respect and curiosity.

“I was grateful for what I thought were really very honest statements at the table and the ability of people to state different points of view and listen compassionately to each other, and the real desire for continued conversation,” said Laura Black.

An associate professor of communication studies, Black facilitated an “Open Topic” table where participants were able to engage in conversation about any issue of their choosing.

After first introducing themselves and explaining their reasons for attending the event, the individuals at Black’s table talked about a variety of issues, including the positives and negatives of racially diverse and non-diverse communities, each individual’s first encounter with race, the results of systematic racism, and how each individual and OHIO itself can more effectively address racial issues.  

“Everybody is raced, everybody has a racial identity or a host of different cultural identities, and that’s really what’s at play when we’re having these conversations. It’s not outside of us. It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s our lived experience and we can make differences in our own everyday lives,” Black said. “I think it’s very important and I hope that we are able to continue to take this conversation to the next level.”

At the end of the event, participants were encouraged to use Post-it notes to write down positive things they will start doing and negative things they will stop doing as a result of the day’s conversations. Some students said they would start talking about racism and reflecting on their privilege, while others said they would stop judging based on stereotypes and giving up on the possibility of positive change.

According to Hall-Jones, the Post-it notes will be used as feedback to help create themes and topics for future Campus Conversations.

“There are so many layers to this conversation, so we decided we would do more of a series on race and inequality for the remainder of the spring,” Hall-Jones explained.

The next Campus Conversation is scheduled for 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11, in the Walter Hall Rotunda, and, according to Hall-Jones, monthly Campus Conversations regarding race and inequality will be held through April.

“I was inspired by how many people came out today; it was such a great turnout,” Hall-Jones concluded. “You could tell that everyone walked away from the event really inspired, and after reading the Post-it notes, I’m convinced that people are really inspired to make a personal change, which is what this is all about.”