Published May 3, 2016
Participants in DIFCON12, a just-concluded series of small-group discussions on provocative topics led by UB faculty members, hope to continue the wide-ranging conversations, which encompassed such sensitive issues as racial and gender biases, ethnicity, segregation and religion.
The discussions, “12 Difficult Conversations in 12 Weeks,” generated praise, comments and debate from those attending the series’ wrap-up, “DIFCON12: Lessons Learned,” May 2 in the Student Union Theater.
The event featured a panel composed of students who attended one or more of the conversations, as well as faculty facilitators from the series.
In her introduction of President Satish K. Tripathi, Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion, thanked Tripathi and Charles F. Zukoski, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, for their enthusiastic support of the initiative.
Tripathi said the DIFCON series brought new groups of students and faculty together, engaging in discussions of difficult issues outside of the classroom.
“There is intense debate going on across the nation’s college and university campuses about what it means to create and sustain an inclusive campus environment,” Tripathi said.
“UB has a vital role to play as a leader in the discussion of difficult issues taking place on a national level. Exploring difficult subjects from multiple points of view is a key aspect of what we do as a university.”
Sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion, the idea for DIFCON12 emerged from a listening tour Miller conducted of residence halls last fall. Discussions took place in campus living/learning spaces from February through April, providing students with small-group environments to raise and address issues they might not feel comfortable or safe bringing up otherwise.
“Among the goals for today’s event is: What did we learn that we can carry forward?” Miller told those in attendance. “I am pleased with how much students brought to these conversations.”
Jason Young, associate professor of history, said that of special importance to him is that on university campuses around the country, “administrations, faculty, police departments and other campus groups are having an incredibly difficult time reacting to student activism. This is this generation’s civil rights movement.
“DIFCON provides universities with an opportunity to react proactively, to act on things before they are acted upon,” he said.
Nathan Daun-Barnett and Raechele Pope, associate professors in the Graduate School of Education, spoke about what was learned from their DIFCON mini-lecture, “Race and Privilege on Campus.”
“With privilege comes the responsibility to engage in difficult conversations,” said Daun-Barnett. “But you need to develop the skills to have these types of discussions before you find yourself having to engage in them.”
“Students — all of us — are constantly searching for the right things to say in these conversations,” said Pope.
“One of the things I hope we take away from DIFCON is to give the other person room to make a mistake in that conversation, and recognize that that is OK. We can then recognize that it is also OK to make our own mistake. Don’t let it stop you from engaging in that conversation. We are a university — mistakes are part of the learning process.”
Miller told the group that fear of making a mistake is not the only reason that students sometimes avoid a difficult conversation.
“I heard students say over and over about how in talking about something sensitive that they have seen, or felt, such as experiencing micro-aggressions, there is often a fear that someone may lash out at them — or attack them — so they stay silent.”
Miller said another important lesson from DIFCON12 was helping students gain a vocabulary to talk about sensitive issues in a way they might not have before.
“Chronologically retracing the history and events that led to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, for example, which Jason Young made a part of his group’s discussion, gave many students the historical continuity of this type of call-to-action.
“That, in turn, provides them with the context and vocabulary to participate in a difficult discussion about these types of issues happening today — whether that means navigating cultural cross-currents, raising an issue or building bridges.”
Several DIFCON facilitators also said that many students attending the discussions did not know each other.
“They took risks in the conversations and gained confidence and comfort in dealing with the particular issue at hand, something that they might have felt defensive about or felt that others might have been defensive about,” said Miller.
Sharon Mitchell, director of counseling services, and Amy Reynolds, associate professor in the School of Graduate Education, conducted the DIFCON12 mini-lecture “Why are Difficult Conversations so Difficult?”
“It is extremely important to have these types of conversations across campus groups,” Mitchell told those who attended the “Lessons Learned” event.
“It is especially vital for students that the top campus leadership take part and be invested in this. It sets a tone, opening doors that allow for more in-depth conversations,” she said.
Pope added that the discussions need to extend between and across campus groups.
“Don’t silo the conversation,” she urged. “It’s important to not just move across silos, but through them and also within them.”
The key for difficult conversations within a group, as well as those that happen between groups, attendees agreed, is to conduct them in a spirit of community and good will.
“Students want to talk about these types of issues,” Reynolds said, “and they know it’s difficult. So to have these conversations, we have to increase our comfort with discomfort.”
Miller said plans for continuing DIFCONS, perhaps in different formats, are ongoing. She noted that UB is starting a program in the fall centered around students and faculty dining together.