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DIFCON debates Heritage Months

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published April 18, 2017

Are Heritage Month celebrations essential to an inclusive, culturally competent UB community?

UB’s Difficult Conversations series kicked off its events for 2017 yesterday with a student, faculty and staff panel focused on that question. Panelists and audience members exchanged views on the topic in a debate-style format designed to identify and express differing opinions and consider opposing values.

The spring series, DIFCON: “Owning our Differences,” is sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion.

“The concept of inclusive excellence is integral to UB’s learning process,” Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion, told those attending the first session of the weeklong series of discussions. “This is an informal debate style, designed to encourage all participants — members of our panels together with the audience — to take some risks.

“The goal is not to reach a conclusion on any of the issues presented,” Miller said. “It is to reach a respectful level of mutual understanding — not to pick a winner or a loser.”

Miller said the proposition for the first event questions what many see as an important part of building cultural awareness in the UB community.

“It is essential to create more collaboration and understanding of respecting students, faculty and guests throughout the UB campus,” said Lia Munoz, instructional support assistant for Campus Life and one of four panel members for the event. “Heritage Month celebrations provide a way of continuing that process, showing the importance and value of these discussions.”

“It is valuable to celebrate people and differences during every month,” said Deidree Golbourne, also a panel member and a past president of the UB Black Student Union.

“The celebrations can help to raise the question: What other conversations should we be having and how can they be more fruitful?”

Another panel member, UB international student adviser Jim Bowman, agreed that Heritage Month celebrations work to create cross-cultural dialogue. “They are a tool — among many available — that we must use collaboratively,” he added.

But, he said, “The history of the excluded should not be left to one month of events, or one group. Can you be truly inclusive as a university if these histories of marginalized peoples are relegated to one month a year?”

Bowman also asked: “Are the celebrations a Band-Aid, or are they a solution? Are they simply food, fun and fashion?”

The fourth member of the panel, Kendra Cadogan, an academic adviser in the Daniel Acker Scholars Program, also took an opposing view of Heritage Month celebrations.

“I see the opposing side,” she said. “It is really important for us to understand the positions and opinions of those with differing viewpoints.

“Heritage Months are a symptom of our society: telling the history of many peoples by one segment of society,” Cadogan added. “What is the narrative that is presented in this way?”     

Serving as moderator, Miller posed a question to the audience: “Are we choosing a policy where we relegate these issues to a once-a-month celebration … or a deeper examination?”

A member of the audience, in responding, then asked: “Would there be a need for monthly festivals if the university was doing a deeper examination of these issues in the classrooms?”

Several audience members agreed that larger, structural issues regarding diversity and inclusion are also a consideration: How do we, as a community, expand the conversations — changing the narrative to how the histories of marginalized populations are told?

“UB should be very intentional about inclusivity and bringing diverse faculty to the university, to address the larger issues,” Cadogan said.

Miller noted that part of the answer has started with the new UB Curriculum.

“Part of the new curriculum is a diversity learning requirement for every student,” she told the group. “There is also an initiative focused on learning diversity across the majors, in all departments.

“Our latest initiative is making sure the history of diversity in each discipline is taught and discussed,” she said.

In response to a question asking if Heritage Month events bring about or encourage segregation, Golbourne said she didn’t believe the celebrations are divisive.

“Heritage Month celebrations are giving voice to populations that need to be heard,” she said. “The monthly celebrations are happening because certain populations are already marginalized.

“We may not be hitting the mark, but we are moving in the right direction.

“How will we be prepared, holistically, to continue these conversations, not only during monthly events, but for the future?” she asked. “Finding the commonalities will enable us to have the conversations.”

DIFCON: “Owning our Differences” will continue this week in the Intercultural and Diversity Center, 240 Student Union, except for the April 19 session, which will be held in 104 O’Brian Hall. All sessions will take place from noon to 1:30 p.m.

The topics for each day’s discussion can be found online.