Southern Methodist University is a predominantly white institution in Dallas, Texas. As the student government Diversity & Inclusion Chair, Naomi led the student body through a non-traditional version of SMU’s annual D&I week. The theme?
Conversations With A Stranger.
This work was made possible by a talented & culturally-intelligent committee of student senators and general student senate body members.
The concept for the 2019 D&I week was simple. It was born out of clear societal divides and polarization (the usual: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) which were apparent on SMU’s PWI campus. Paired with a rocky political climate, Naomi figured it wasn’t appropriate to hold the usual celebratory, multicultural programming. It was time for something less common, and much simpler: dialogue. Human connection. And so, April 1st marked the beginning of a week with conversations around Race, Religion, Sexuality, and Gender.
The marketing strategy was to catch the eye of students; to indicate something unusual occurring on campus. Because the event it would be just that: unusual. Students were set up with “conversation cards” including questions to ask a stranger based on the respective topic of the day. Students would take it from there, as the D&I Committee monitored and facilitated dialogue as needed.
“Perhaps one of the best parts of the week, was being within earshot of so many dialogues. Of course, it was wonderful to engage in the conversations. But I found that witnessing how different students’ views could be, and how they would still be so willing to listen to each other, was awe-inspiring. Dialogue alone is never enough. But it’s a start. ” – Naomi Samuel
Leading up to Diversity & Inclusion Week, the committee started an Instagram account to highlight stories which captured student experiences in scenarios having to do with their identities. These posts conveyed how students of various backgrounds navigated assumptions, biases, and all of the collegiate trials coming from their unique perspective. The above is an example of one of the submissions.
Hundreds of conversations were held, and hundreds of T-shirts bearing the sentence: “I like my school inclusive” were handed out. About one hundred of those shirts were given to elementary school students touring the campus. They were thrilled to receive free shirts, probably not grasping the weight of the sentence they bore. Another notable moment, was when the mom of a white, prospective student came up to Naomi as she tabled at the event’s central location on campus. The mother said: “I didn’t know things like this happened here–I’m so relieved.” Naomi understood where the mother was coming from, and re-assured her of the opportunities to engage in advocacy work, whether through student government or the human rights program.