Day of Discovery and Dialogue provides forum for discussion despite student concerns
Despite concerns about the intent of the event, the Day of Discovery and Dialogue, which was designed to open a discussion at Washington University about issues of diversity and inclusion, was hosted on the medical school campus last Wednesday and on Danforth Campus last Thursday.
The Day of Discovery is part of the University’s efforts to increase discussions concerning racial and other types of diversity on campus, and is the second time the University has held the event.
Some students, however, were concerned that these efforts do not go far enough, feeling that they are well-intentioned displays by the University which ultimately lead to little real change. Evidencing these concerns was an incident which occurred on the event’s first day, where students from the Student-Worker Alliance (SWA) interrupted Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s remarks in order to question him about fair treatment for workers.
Senior Chelsea Birchmier, a member of SWA, stood up and interrupted Wrighton to question him about the University’s treatment of its adjunct, custodial and culinary workers.
“Given that racial and economic justice are inextricably linked, how can you advocate for diversity when you exploit many of your faculty and workers by paying them low wages, offering them little to no job benefits, and giving them no job security?” Birchmier asked Wrighton.
Other members of the administration intervened and proposed that Wrighton would meet with the group on Tuesday, March 1, in order to try to find a solution to their demands.
Despite this beginning, the event continued, discussing issues of diversity both on and off campus in a variety of forms including lectures, slam poetry, performances and panels.
In addition, professor of sociology David Cunningham presented on restorative justice projects and how they can be used as examples by the University.
“I certainly think the broader session that I was part of was a great illustration, of not only the diversity in the community but of the ways that people are working with that,” Cunningham said. “For me, it brought together all the segments of the community that are doing all these interesting things that are quite different from each other but really align quite nicely.”
Provost Holden Thorp attended much of the event and said he enjoyed the open format of the presentations.
“I really liked the idea of telling the groups of people that you have a certain amount of time and then letting them come up with whatever presentation they want. It’s really a great way to give people that kind of opportunity to talk about and present something that’s on their mind and really not have it scripted in any way at all,” Thorp said.
While many administrators and faculty enthusiastically endorsed the event, some students wondered whether the day was an event more to placate the student body than to legitimately engage them in an open dialogue.
One such student was Savannah Martin, a graduate student and Olin fellow, who performed a piece of slam poetry at the event. Martin expressed concerns that the dialogue would not translate into action.
“I also think that Wash. U. really needs to not just pay lip service to—but instead make a very concerted effort to—[is] increasing socioeconomic diversity on campus, because there is very little of that,” Martin said. “One of the first steps, obviously, is getting people to talk about diversity, but it can be hard to tell if the administration is actually taking what is said seriously and turning that into action or [if] the opportunity to air grievances is more about just placating behavior.”
Noting that efforts to increase diversity, including increased admissions for historically underrepresented groups, are already underway, Thorp agreed that more work needs to be done, but that this day and other efforts like it constitute a starting point to build from.
“I think we’ve identified diversity as a critical area where we need to have success, and we’ve realized that it’s going to take the whole community coming together to achieve it,” Thorp said. “Events like we had aren’t the sole solution, by any means, but they’re part of the overall picture by which we can hear the voices of the community and allow those voices to shape what the strategy of the University is going forward.”