Expanding the dialogue: The Year of Diversity in Review

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Expanding the dialogue: The Year of Diversity in Review

A student adds his name to a panther mosaic at a Year of Diversity event in October 2016. (Photo by Kyleen Considine | Senior Staff Photographer)

A student adds his name to a panther mosaic at a Year of Diversity event in October 2016. (Photo by Kyleen Considine | Senior Staff Photographer)

A student adds his name to a panther mosaic at a Year of Diversity event in October 2016. (Photo by Kyleen Considine | Senior Staff Photographer)

A student adds his name to a panther mosaic at a Year of Diversity event in October 2016. (Photo by Kyleen Considine | Senior Staff Photographer)

By Caroline Bourque | Senior Staff Writer

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Comedian Scott Blakeman walked onto the William Pitt Union Ballroom stage in early April and immediately launched into a bit about Jewish-American culture.

“Hillary Clinton claimed she was part Jewish during her presidential campaign,” he said. “I looked it up, turns out it’s true. She had a ninth cousin, twice removed, who ate a brisket sandwich once.”

His comic partner, Dean Obeidallah, followed him with an act poking fun at his own heritage.

“Arabic Muslims say ‘Inshallah’ all the time. It means ‘God willing.’ I once asked where the bathroom was in an Arabic restaurant, the guy said it after he told me,” Obeidallah said.

The duo — who together form the comedy group Stand Up for Peace — were both met with laughter and applause from the student audience. The Muslim Student Association and Hillel chapter — two groups brought together by Pitt’s Year of Diversity — invited them to perform at Pitt.

After the event, Meital Rosenberg, then a senior economics and international and area studies major and active member of Hillel, said the evening was intended to showcase that two groups often seen as very different actually have much in common.

“At the end of the day, we’re all human,” she said. “We’re not isolated categories. We want people to walk away from this understanding everybody wants to have peace and be able to laugh together.”

The stand-up routine was only one of more than 200 events held this past year to promote unity and celebrate differences as part of Pitt’s Year of Diversity. Other notable individuals who visited the campus during the year included Nyle DiMarco, a Deaf activist and actor, and Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican LGBTQ+ activist.

The University Senate Council Group on Diversity and Inclusion called for the University in 2015 to declare the 2016-17 academic year the Year of Diversity Then SGB president and member of the group Nasreen Harun said the proposition would bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront of the University’s focuses.

“The grants and incentives that come from designating [2015-2016] as the Year of Humanities has really made people think about this topic,” Harun said.

The Year of Diversity helped fund The Pitt News Silhouettes edition, led to the creation of a new general education requirement — that will apply to students entering the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences in fall of 2018 — and produced an ongoing Diversity Book Club.

At the forefront of last year’s Year of Diversity was Kacey Marra, an associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Plastic Surgery and co-chair of the Year of Diversity Steering Committee.

She gradually became more involved in diversity-related initiatives during her Pitt career, she said, joining multiple committees at Pitt focusing on issues of gender equity such as the wage gap and women’s leadership over the past decade. In recent years, Marra became more interested in diversity issues in Pitt’s School of Engineering and School of Medicine.

Provost Patricia Beeson tasked Marra and Waverly Duck, the other co-chair, to form a committee for the Year of Diversity, eventually settling on 20 students, faculty and staff with past interests in diversity issues in committees or campus organizations before the start of the academic year.

The group met throughout the year to discuss different events occurring on all Pitt campuses related to diversity issues. They also put out the call for event proposals related to diversity issues, aided by the Provost’s offer of up to $5,000 in matching funds for campus organizations with approved ideas.

“The events, I think, had profound effects on many different facets of the Pitt community,” Marra said.

The result was over 200 events throughout the year, from poetry readings to trips abroad, with a wide variety of diversity-related topics spanning everything from disability, religion, racism, LGBTQ+ and socioeconomic issues.

The lasting impact of the Year of Diversity is ensured by the research grants awarded to 30 principal investigators among the five Pitt campuses, all of which received funding for research in diversity in areas of race, ethnicity, age, gender and sexuality. Additionally, Duck proposed a yearly workshop for the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences to develop courses related to diversity, which would fill the new diversity course requirement.

However, certain Pitt community members worried that this sudden awareness of diversity on campus would fade once the Year of Diversity officially ended. For Alexa Connors, a rising senior and vice president of the Campus Women’s Organization, this was a primary concern.

Connors, a gender and women’s studies and biology double major, was originally skeptical of the concept of a Year of Diversity. She said she wondered why celebrating diversity had to be confined to a specific time frame.

“Why should we only have a year of diversity?,” Connors said. “Why can’t it just be ongoing?”

But Connors said she and other CWO members ultimately concluded that the year was a great way to open up the conversation around diversity and begin to educate the community.

“We’re kind of hoping to keep the momentum going now that there’s been a spotlight on all the diversity organizations,” Connors said, “We want to keep it going, and not let it die down.”

“Dialogue with the Dean,” an open discussion held once during the fall and spring semester, allowed students to come to Dean Kenyon Bonner with ideas on how to celebrate diversity and promote inclusion at Pitt. At the first event held in September, Bonner made it clear that the Year of Diversity was meant to have lasting effects.

“Is this a one-and-done?” Bonner said during the discussion. “Absolutely not.”

Though Pitt hopes the focus on diversity will continue in the future, the University has formally announced a new focus for the upcoming year — The Year of Healthy U. Provost Patricia Beeson said in a letter that the University will focus on promoting healthy habits and better understanding human health.

“It is my hope that the Year of Healthy U will advance our understanding of health in all its forms and renew our commitment to fostering a healthy community,” Beeson said.

Student organizations will continue to focus on diversity, even after the formal Pitt programming has ended. CWO is planning to again hold this coming year the event “What Home Means to Me,” a night of storytelling held in partnership with the Garden of Peace project, a community organized designed to support and empower LGBTQ+ individuals. The event, held this past April, primarily featured people in the queer community reading personal poetry and prose.

In carrying out events like this, Connors was surprised at the administration’s largely hands-off approach to the Year of Diversity, instead allowing campus leaders and organizations to lead the charge by submitting their own idea proposals.

“They did put a lot of responsibility on the diversity organizations to spearhead the Year of Diversity,” Connors said. “It really forced all of the organizations to step up as leaders on campus and make our presence known.”

According to Brandon Daveler, president of Pitt’s Students for Disability Advocacy group, this type of approach was a welcome opportunity for SDA.

SDA thrived during the Year of Diversity, expanding their reach and impact by holding faculty and staff information sessions, presenting at the Panther Leadership Summit, and participating in Boxes and Walls, an event which highlighted “historically oppressed groups.”

“If anything, I believe [The Year of Diversity] has reinforced the need to advocate for full inclusion and promote diversity,” Daveler, who lives with a disability and is forced to deal with the stigma surrounding it, said. “And not only the university level, but also as a community and national level.”

As an organization that pushes for greater inclusion and communication surrounding the topic of disability, the SDA succeeded in earning mentions in multiple magazines and newspaper articles throughout the year, including New Mobility, Diversity in Action and The Pitt News.

I believe the year diversity was successful even if it only changed the perspective of one person,” Daveler said. “That one individual now has the power and ability to change the perspective of several others.”

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