How do our words shape our thoughts and our worlds? At Elizabethtown College, the language and the dialogue continue to expand and include conversations about diverse perspectives and individual identities. By encouraging the entire campus community to participate in campus-wide initiatives, class projects and often-difficult discussions, the College has committed to creating a culture that gives credence to all the nuances of the human experience.
This fall, Elizabethtown College opened a physical space that welcomes the campus community to gather, listen, learn and share their unique stories and perspectives. Mosaic House, at the corner of Orange and Mount Joy streets, is the embodiment of inclusive excellence and another space on campus for open dialogue.
“We heard from students that we needed to do more and to provide more,” said Allison Bridgeman, associate dean of students and director of residence life. In addition to offering a greater variety of programs and lectures, the Office of Multicultural Programs oversees the daily management of Mosaic House. “It’s… a space where a lot of different things can happen,” she said, with excitement in her voice. There is a living room for hanging out or watching television, a kitchen and dining room table for gathering together for meals and possibly a lunch program series. Upstairs there is a meeting space for programs and workshops like Safe Zone Training—physical spaces on college campuses for students of the LGBTQ+ community to spend time—as well as space for student organizations.
“Last fall, an incident occurred where different degrading words were left on academic whiteboards,” Ariel Davis-Robinson, a senior psychology major. “While it did shake the campus, we came back even stronger.” She is proud to have been one of the students who petitioned for change after the incident. The Mosaic House, hiring a director of diversity, focusing on classes addressing minorities and incorporating a curriculum that addressed the culture to incoming first-year students are all positive results—due, in part, to students and faculty members who continued the conversation.
… people wanted to see how we could change the culture on campus.” — Richard Newton
Davis-Robinson, president of Noir, said the student club is making a strong impact and has kept a steady base of interested members who want to be a part of what she describes as a “big family” and “one big support group.” She has helped with cultural fairs, rap sessions, poetry night, MLK week and a campuswide event called the Six-Word Story Project.
The Six-Word Story Project was something she first heard about in a class taught by Richard Newton, assistant professor of religious studies, called “Signifying Religion and African American Worldview.” He incorporated some of former NPR Correspondent Michele Norris’ Race Card Project ideas to foster a dialogue about race.
“The start of the Six-Word Story Project came about after the bias-related incident here on campus, he said. Regardless of what people thought about those statements, alone, it was indicative of a campus climate that was not wholly welcoming to students of color or the LGBTQ community—and people wanted to see how we could change the culture on campus.”
Nearly 500 unique Six-Word Stories were shared. Roughly one-third of the campus participated in the open dialogue about their identities. Claiming authorship over their own stories, labels and lives, the campus was fueled by words written on whiteboards in the BSC, the library and on sheets of paper in classrooms, residence halls and at athletic practices.
“The Six-Word Story Project is just an opportunity to express who you are and that’s always subject to change,” said Newton. “I think what people struggle with is that in writing down these words it sums up everything that they are. So that’s the point of the project: to recognize that there are people for whom words define them in ways that the rest of their lives will not be able to.
As early as 2009, the College produced A Plan For Strengthening Campus Diversity, understanding the need for a focus on being a diverse and inclusive campus. In order to continue the recent campus dialogue and progress—the College lead the charge to include and encourage the expression of multiple narratives and, this summer, Monica Smith was hired as the director of diversity, building on the work of Diane Elliott who retired in 2015.
“What impressed me about Elizabethtown was they had committed to diversity and inclusion and it is already part of their strategic plan,” Smith said. While new to Elizabethtown, Smith has been involved with diversity and inclusion work for a decade. She has experience in developing programs, protocols, processes and in strengthening links between departments to bring people together. Her role is institution-wide, so she’ll work with faculty and staff members and students to meet ambitious short-term goals such as:
This summer, Smith held implicit-biased training that included campus security and staff members. She also connected with Human Resources to ensure that diversity is part of the ongoing process and started training new hires, introducing them to diversity inclusion. This fall, she’s partnered with students and faculty and staff members to host difficult dialogues. “We have, as Americans, experienced, over the summer and the last year, a lot of discussion from political rhetoric to social issues involving police brutality, #blacklivesmatter, #alllivesmatter, #bluelivesmatter. There’s a lot of discussion and a lot of dialogue in the media and particularly in social media that really speak to our identity as a diverse nation,” she explained.
Understanding diversity gets at the heart of our identity—so it really includes everyone. Dean of Students Marianne Calenda put it this way: “When there is conflict, we understand that more dialogue is necessary—it’s part of our heritage.” And it’s about more than just conversations about conflict. “Diversity and inclusive excellence is becoming part of our fabric,” she said. “When we’re considering new programs or services, the thinking now is more automatic. We ask ourselves ‘How does this serve all students? How are we including students from diverse backgrounds? Are we including students with physical disabilities or learning differences?’ ”
Incorporating all voices takes work. Recent graduate Ragina Lashley agrees. “I think a lot of people in this world don’t want to say the wrong thing, but the problem is that, because people don’t want to say the wrong thing, they don’t end up saying anything.”
During her time at Elizabethtown College, she was a member of NOIR, and was involved in discussions with Calenda, representatives from Residence Life, Student Senate and various professors about diversity inclusion in all aspects of learning. “People at E-town want to do the right thing, she said. “We came up with the idea for the Mosaic House to be a place where students could have meaningful discussions. It is a space that brings everyone together—not just certain groups,” she said.
Evan Smith, associate professor of psychology, is an advisor to LGBTQ and Queer Student Union groups. Though he has been teaching at Elizabethtown for 11 years, his most recent project with Common Roads, an LGBTQ youth program, encapsulates the role of words to shape thoughts and worlds. “For that project, myself and three undergrads attended four sessions and asked youths to take pictures that, in some way, captured something about them and the LGBTQ person that told their story.” When asked to describe a photograph that spoke to him, he said: “One youth took an image of some graffiti down by the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, and what had been spray painted on the wall said, ‘You are not broken.’ She walked by it all the time, but occasionally she needed to hear the message and get an affirmation from the world at large.”
What is E-town’s story? “Open to exploring all our realities,” said Newton. “I want it to be a place that recognizes that human beings come from a wide range of places, a wide range of perspectives, dealing with a wide range of problems and, in order to manifest things like our hopes and dreams, and in order to do things like educate for service, we have to wrestle with the nitty gritty of what makes us who we are and how we are different.” He wants Elizabethtown College to never shy away from the realities of social difference but, instead, openly embrace all the challenges that come from doing just that. “This is a place, I believe, that can be always at the forefront of asking how we can do better.”
Change often starts with a conversation, and the more voices and experiences we include, the better our understanding.