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Course provides safe space to unpack power, privilege

When Michelle Pinkrah strolled into her first Thursdays-at-3:30 p.m. class of the semester in late January, she had no idea what she’d signed up for. She had signed up by accident, actually. The class wasn’t her first choice for her practicum course requirement with College Park Scholars, where she is a student, and she’d quickly forgotten it was even on her schedule.

Pinkrah sat down in the circle of her peers and encountered something she hadn’t expected: a dialogue class, or, a class that centers around group discussion of life and experiences.

Then class started. The instructors introduced themselves. The students did the usual beginning-of-semester icebreaker. Then, the instructors took it a step further: They asked the students to share—out loud—their assumptions about the instructors’ identities. How old were the lead instructors? What about each of the teaching assistants? What race and ethnicity was each? Their sexual orientation? Their education level?

Pinkrah, a sophomore psychology major, was pretty jarred.

“After it was done, I remember going to my friend and being like, ‘Whoa, this class,’” said the Science and Global Change Scholar. “‘What did I just get into?’”

Pinkrah had gotten into CPSP369J: Teaching and Learning about Cultural Diversity through Intergroup Dialogue – Dialogue Facilitation Practicum. The course brings Scholars and Honors College students together for an active, practice-based learning experience where they can discuss issues of social identity while at the same time learning to facilitate said discussions.

The shocking, powerful and sometimes uncomfortable conversations held in class did not stop, Pinkrah said. But discomfort led the way to comfort, and the class soon became an eye-opening space for Pinkrah and her peers to speak with—and learn from—each other.

Privilege and Perspectives

That first exercise, where students had to make uncomfortable assumptions about their teachers, was shocking for sophomore sociology and history double major Carlos Choppin, too. But it was also a spark for the International Studies Scholars student to start thinking about issues of social identity, diversity and privilege outside of the classroom.

“It’s a lot of being in tune with your body,” Choppin said, “but also starting to conceptualize how this is happening in real time and how these things are taking place in real life.”

Choppin said he has an interest in social work. Last summer, he volunteered for A Wider Circle, a nonprofit based in Silver Spring, Maryland, that aims to lift people out of poverty. But the dialogue course has helped him start to consider how his identity as a White man influences his service. He appreciates how the course doesn’t just talk about issues in a White space, but brings people of different identities together to move across barriers.

“When I do social work, I have to learn how to communicate across these identities,” Choppin said.

For Choppin, being able to talk openly and comfortably with so many people of so many different backgrounds has made him more aware of what he takes for granted and the effect of White supremacy in everyday life. It has also encouraged him to speak about these issues to his friends and family, something that might typically be avoided in those groups.

For Pinkrah, it’s a bit different. She’s the only Black student in the course, she said. After sitting down in the class for the first time, she quickly realized the obstacle of coming from a very different perspective compared to her peers.

“There were things where people said, ‘Oh my gosh, this completely changed how I view things,’” Pinkrah said. “I was like, ‘Well, it didn’t really change anything for me, because I’ve always viewed it that way.’”

But that difference has led her to truly understand the gaps in experiences that she and her classmates face, she said.

“I know it’s not everyone’s experience,” Pinkrah said, “but it’s really not everyone’s experience.”

The course helped Pinkrah “reframe her brain” to understand just how much race, gender, sexuality and even familial environment play a role in people’s life experiences.

Before the class, if someone had held a different opinion from her, Pinkrah might have just accepted it as different and moved on, she said. Now, she can put herself in their shoes and begin to understand why someone might think the way they do. It’s helped her when she encounters conflict among her friends, for example.

And, though the course confirmed for Pinkrah the singularity of her own experience within the group, she was also able to find shared experiences, like with others who come from immigrant families.

A Safe Space for Sharing Opinions

One of the course’s main goals is to create a safe space for experiences and opinions to be heard. For Susan Collard, a sophomore double majoring in government & politics and communications, the emphasis on constructive conversation, self-reflection and emotion has made her more aware of her privilege as a White person.

In her day-to-day life, Collard doesn’t often think about how her racial identity is perceived by others, she said. But hearing her non-White peers talk about stereotypes or fears that they experience due to their identities made her consider the spaces where she is comfortable, but others, including her friends, may not be.

“It’s just made me a more aware and cognizant person of how my identities impact how I move through the world,” the IS Scholars student said.

Collard noted one exercise where the White students and the non-White students in the class were separated into different rooms for group discussion—what’s called a “caucus”—and then brought back together to speak about what they discussed.

Through the exercise, Collard said she was able to learn and engage in conversation about how some of the non-White students felt like the term “people of color” wasn’t sufficient to capture the experience of every marginalized racial identity, for example.

That conversation was focused on the principle of calling in, not out, Collard said. She explained the philosophy as that of gently explaining to students about how their words affect each other rather than students singling each other out for using hurtful language. That was one of the first things the instructors said to students to ensure that the space would not be one of judgment.

“We’re all kind of trained to think that everyone’s judging us at every moment,” Collard said. “But over time, I definitely became more comfortable with being more vulnerable.”

Part of that vulnerability stems from the relationships that students have been able to forge with their teachers and teaching assistants. The instructors for the course are more like peers or friends than anything else, Pinkrah said. Students seldom worry their opinions will be attacked, or teachers will be mad or disappointed.

“It’s kind of freeing in that aspect,” she said.

The course concludes with students’ facilitation projects, where groups lead and facilitate a discussion in the University of Maryland community on a topic of their choice. Topics range from the grips of gender norms on society, to the model minority myth to disparities in drug use and criminalization.

Choppin’s facilitation project focused on imposter syndrome among STEM students, particularly students from underrepresented groups in the field. Choppin’s two other group members are both physics majors, and they’d noticed a lack of non-White students in their classes, for example. People in those spaces can start to feel like they don’t belong, Choppin noted, so this conversation allowed people to tell their own experience with imposter syndrome and begin to acknowledge it.

The facilitation project undertaken by Choppin’s group was primarily based on the structure of the course. After all, he realized over time that each class session is essentially a little facilitation in and of itself.

“There’s not a lot of silence,” he said. “It’s all discussion, it’s all people’s feelings, it’s all bouncing off one another as students and what other people are experiencing.”

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