This has been a year of uncomfortable conversations on campus. And that makes me comfortable.
This year, the administration, the student body, and campus as a whole had some difficult conversations with each other. We talked, sometimes calmly, sometimes heatedly, sometimes quietly, and sometimes loudly, about diversity and inclusivity, and what that means and should mean at Middlebury in 2016.
These conversations at times have been painful for those in the center of them, and for those who were closer to the edges, listening in. We heard truths, and sorrow, and impatience. We heard hopes, and fears, and dreams, and frustrations. And we heard moments of real engagement and possibility.
Why does this make me comfortable? Because these are important conversations, and our ability to have them reveals our strength as a community. We all, from time to time, must speak uncomfortable truths to one another. That is what it means to have “arguments for the sake of heaven,” as I mentioned in my inaugural address. These are discussions worth having. Part of the nature of a college campus, and certainly a campus such as Middlebury, is that a free exchange of ideas is not only expected but encouraged. Uncomfortable truths are a matter of course. Professors present ideas to their students that make them uncomfortable. Students in turn can present ideas to professors that make them uncomfortable. Students can also wrestle with course material, or class discussions, or campus events, or with each other. Staff have also played critical roles in these tough conversations.
But discomfort is not a reason to avoid free expression, even when it comes to expressing thoughts and ideas and beliefs about inclusivity. Supporting free speech and supporting inclusivity in our language, our conversations, and our actions are not goals that are at odds with each other. In fact, they are helpful complements to each other. Supporting both allows us to take our discussions to the next level, where we can make mistakes without fear because we want to become more aware than we are today. We want to be stronger. We want to do better.
Diversity and inclusivity are not “problems” that we’re going to “solve.” They are part of an ethos that we need to hold up every day, even if we might fail to fulfill that ethos on a regular basis. They’re values that we live by. They are values for us to talk about, and consider, and embrace, as we grow in our understanding of what they mean today—at Middlebury and in the wider world.
There are many ways to have these conversations. We talk in person, one on one, in groups, in meetings, in symposium. We talk on the phone, through text and email. We put our names, our voices, our faces to our words. We humanize them. We own them.
But we must be more mindful, I believe, about our conversations when we talk through social media, which has an ever-increasing multitude of channels for us to communicate though. There are so many ways to speak one’s opinions. But there are also so many ways to be silenced. Tap a few keys and you can shut down a conversation you disagree with, or mute a voice you don’t like, or send a message of shame without ever having to own your words. The worst conversation is the conversation that isn’t allowed to be. My rule for us is: Face-to-face conversation first. Social media second.
We have had uncomfortable conversations, and we will keep on having them. And we’re bringing our conversations to the next level: The Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury is planning a spring conference titled “Activists, Allies, and Accomplices: Responses to Racism Today.” The conference will consider contemporary responses to racism and examine historical precedents. Middlebury students will discuss white ally-ship and student activists from other colleges will discuss their experiences this last year and the issues they faced. Rinku Sen, the editor of Colorlines, will be the keynote speaker and Rashawn Ray, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, will discuss racial uplift through activism and social policy. JusTalks will be working with every incoming student next year in workshops helping them live in community while developing the crucial skills of engaging with real differences.
Yes, some of our conversations have made us uncomfortable this year, but I’m comfortable that we’re having them. I’m comfortable knowing that we are learning from our mistakes, and we’re holding each other accountable—to own our words, to push us to the next level of inclusive excellence. We have so much we can learn from each other—as long as we keep talking, and keep listening.
Patton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.