By Angela Burrow, PhD student in Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources
“She said WHAT!?!”
Have you ever been in conversation with someone in your department, perhaps a peer, your advisor, or a visitor, and been suddenly surprised by a discriminatory comment? Or have you attended an event where something occurred or was said to make you feel like an outsider? Chances are, if you’re human, then you have and that in the moment you “blanked.” According to Dr. Michelle Garfield Cook, Chief Diversity Officer of the University of Georgia’s Office of Institutional Diversity, this is a common response, which she calls “the blackout moment.” Unfortunately, this natural reaction can leave individuals feeling disgruntled because the issue is never addressed. Recently, Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, held a discussion on diversity to open the floor for individuals to voice their complaints and praises. The invitation was extended to all members of the Warnell community, faculty, students, and staff, by Dean Greene. The event was prompted by an inappropriate email and the desire to start a conversation about diversity and inclusion within Warnell. Dr. Cook facilitated the discussion and opened by encouraging everyone that the discussion was a safe environment to voice issues but cautioned against expecting issues to be resolved in a one hour time-frame. She encouraged individuals to voice their problems and engage in diversity by “stepping in it” and speaking frankly.
I won’t go into specifics (to honor the confidentially of the discussion) but several themes emerged after the floor was opened. Participants discussed topics regarding gender, race, age, position in the department, sexual orientation, disability, and religion. While many comments focused on negative experiences, several individuals had praise for the support they have received in the department. For those of you in Warnell, you know Warnell is often referred to as a family and this sentiment was echoed many times. Unfortunately, just like in real families, sometimes the big issues are not discussed. Also, as one student mentioned, sometimes the problems are small things that individually add up. Perhaps it’s fear of “disrupting the love”, reluctance to sweat the small stuff, or not knowing how to start but often people are reluctant to speak up. UGA is composed of many departments, some larger and some smaller, but presumably they all try to encourage goodwill amongst their members. An open forum discussion is an excellent way to get at “hidden” issues that can potentially sabotage departmental harmony. While Warnell’s discussion was prompted by a particular incident, I would encourage other departments to proactively schedule a similar discussion to keep tabs on their own cultures.
During the Warnell discussion, all levels of participants expressed a desire to increase awareness and accountability. Students very clearly asked for increased communication, reporting, questioning, and promotion regarding diversity topics from administration. From the other side, administration encouraged individuals to hold one another accountable and speak up. This idea, from Dr. Cook, that accountability occurs in all directions and that the culture and climate of our department depends on every level and every individual particularly resonated with me. If each and every one of us that want to create an inclusive, welcoming environment actively pursued that goal, then no one could stop our momentum!
Regarding the issue of intent…in conversations after the discussion, some people had issue with the notion that intent matters. While we are all human and therefore err, this comes back to the idea of culture. As open minded individuals, we may not want intent to matter, myself included, because in a perfect Warnell no one would have biases. Unfortunately, that is just not a reality; we all have biases (even if we don’t think we do, check out Harvard’s Project Implicit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html). However, the community and culture that we foster within Warnell can either promote or reject those biases. The best time and place to address the issue of intent is during our daily interactions with individuals. Again, it comes back to bi-directional accountability. Individuals need to respectfully speak up, stand out, and question bias in others. Faculty also need to be seen respectfully confronting bias and serving as role models for diversity. Administration needs to promote increased diversity through hiring practices, programs, training opportunities, and by serving as the watchdog and spearhead of diversity and inclusion.
On a final note, this opening discussion was an excellent opportunity for many people to voice their opinions, feelings, and ideas without criticism. However, this is just a first step! We have received a follow-up email from the Dean regarding additional ways individuals can contribute to the conversation (including anonymously which was a concern). Additionally, administration will be discussing the topics raised in a follow-up meeting. For true progress to be made, however, the momentum must continue! I look forward to seeing and being a part of the positive changes to come.