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Dismantling Racism initiative aims to eliminate racism on campus

RELEASED: Dec. 7, 2009

EAU CLAIRE — Dr. Ari Anand knows that students in his anthropology classes at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire often are uncomfortable when he pushes them to think about people and cultures they perceive as different.

With most of his students growing up in homogeneous Midwestern communities, few have had sustained or extensive interactions with people who are racially or culturally different from them, he said. As an anthropologist and an educator at a liberal-arts-based university, helping students learn to respectfully engage people across racial, social or cultural differences is an important part of his job, said Anand.

"I'm not out to offend my students but they need to learn to appreciate differences so they can get along in our fast-changing world," said Anand, an assistant professor of anthropology. "In my classes, I push and prod students to help them understand all kinds of differences without their approving or disapproving of the differences. We often talk about societal or cultural practices that differ greatly from what they've always assumed to be normal or right, including things that go against their moral or religious beliefs."

While those conversations can be uncomfortable for the students and for him, Anand said he's become more confident leading the discussions because of his involvement in UW-Eau Claire's Dismantling Racism program, an initiative that has brought together more than 90 faculty and staff members who are committed to eliminating racism on campus.

"DR has empowered me at a personal level," Anand said. "It's made me a less timid teacher because I know the university sees the value in what I'm trying to do in the classroom. I'm teaching with more confidence and freedom because I know UW-Eau Claire recognizes that educated people sometimes have to talk about things that make them uncomfortable. Our world, even in rural Wisconsin, is changing and our students must be prepared."

Dismantling Racism brings together faculty, staff and community members to create anti-racist institutional change, said Dr. David Shih, UW-Eau Claire's equity, diversity and inclusiveness fellow. The grassroots effort emphasizes consciousness raising, relationship building and organized action, he said.

"This is different than anything else we've done on this campus," Shih said. "This is anti-racism training; it's not diversity training. We're working in an organized fashion to achieve institutional change. We are building consciousness and getting to know and trust each other."

The DR initiative defines racism as a system of privilege based on race, Shih said. The campus needs to develop a shared understanding of what it means to have white privilege before it can become an anti-racist university, he said.

"Beverly Daniel Tatum says that racism is like a moving sidewalk," Shih said. "The most well-intentioned person can perpetuate discrimination simply by standing still. Active anti-racism is walking against the direction of the sidewalk — going beyond eliminating interpersonal bias to dismantling institutional bias. We have to be actively doing anti-racism work or racism will continue."

The emphasis on relationship building is what makes the initiative so powerful, said Anand, who became involved in the program in May.

"Human relationships are the cornerstone of any real change," Anand said. "DR has brought many people together to have some difficult conversations. You spend a lot of time with these people and together you struggle with some very tough issues. It takes work, energy and engagement. The fact that so many people are working this hard gives me a lot of hope."

The value of the relationships that have resulted from the initiative was clear this fall when the campus community learned that construction of a new student center could endanger the Council Oak tree, which is of historic significance to Native Americans, said Dr. Susan Turell, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of undergraduate studies.

"Because we already had built relationships through DR, we were able as a campus to have a much more honest and open discussion when the Council Oak issue came up," Turell said. "That demonstrated the value of having strong relationships in place across the campus."

Since the initiative began in spring 2008, five training sessions have taken place on campus, Shih said, noting that professional trainers from outside the university lead the sessions. Three cohorts of participants have completed two-day anti-racism training sessions, and many of those people also have completed one-day follow-up sessions, he said.

The two-day session helps people understand how racism developed in the United States and how racism is a system of privilege that benefits white people, Shih said.

"People have to understand how racism was constructed before they can work to dismantle it," Shih said. "They have to understand how racism maintains itself so they can understand how they can work against it. There is an important history component to the training. One reason this process works is because it helps people develop a common understanding about race and racism. It helps people think about race and power in a whole different way."

After participants complete the first training session, they become part of the White Allies Caucus or the People of Color Caucus, Shih said. The caucuses continue the relationship-building process and work on anti-racism tasks, he said, noting that the caucuses allow members to do anti-racism work without being constrained by the institution's policies and structure.

"Having the separate caucuses is important because the stakes in an anti-racism effort are different if you are white or a person of color," Shih said. "If we engage in this initiative and do this work, the consequences will affect people differently. Both caucuses do meet together several times a year so that we can get to know one another and strengthen our collective purpose."

The Dismantling Racism effort began as a College of Arts and Sciences initiative so many of the first participants were faculty and instructional staff from that college, Shih said. However, the program has expanded so participants now include faculty and staff from all the colleges, as well as administrators and community members.

"It began as a way to make sure departments were able to increase their capacity to truly include the world views that people of different ethnicities and cultures could offer," said Turell, who proposed the initiative after listening to some faculty of color talk about feeling uneasy in certain departments, even when white faculty in the departments were trying to be welcoming. "We need people to be fully valued, and part of that is listening to and including all world views and perspectives in decision making."

More training sessions will be offered, with the hope that eventually most of the campus community will participate, Shih said, adding that the initiative will continue indefinitely.

"There is no big 'a-ha' moment when you say the university is now 'there' and our work is complete," Turell said. "We're accomplishing things but we have to keep moving forward and keep the campus engaged. For me, this feels personal. We have to keep working at this because the alternative is not tolerable for people I care about. People of color must be truly valued and respected on our campus."

UW-Eau Claire is working with the Racial Equity Institute, an alliance of trainers and organizers who devote themselves to the work of anti-racist transformation. The institute's trainers help organizations develop tools to challenge patterns of power and grow equity.

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JB/DW

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