Aisha Sultan wants us to care about what’s being said every day on playgrounds, at birthday parties and in classrooms.
Small stuff, right?
“Why sweat the small stuff?” asked Sultan, a nationally syndicated, award-winning columnist, filmmaker and podcaster. “Because systemic structural change takes a long time. But it can take a single moment to change behavior.
“It’s those small moments in the way that we treat one another that impact how we see one another, and how people see us on playgrounds and in social situations,” Sultan said. “Words have the power to bring us together or to make us lonelier, more disconnected or suspicious of one another.”
Sultan’s remarks came as the keynote presentation at Washington University in St. Louis’ sixth annual Day of Dialogue & Action, two full days of talks, panel discussions and workshops at both the Medical and Danforth campuses that challenged and inspired the more than 700 faculty, staff and students who participated.
“As a society, it seems some of us have lost the ability to come to the same table, to hear one another, to see one another, to respectfully dialogue with one another, and to embrace one another without preconceived judgment or bias,” Chancellor Andrew D. Martin said in his opening remarks. He noted the importance to “model what it’s like to be a community where all people feel welcome, valued and included.”
Taking two days out of the life of a university is an investment, the chancellor said, but an important one. “It is crucial that we as a community invest time in one another and make intentional spaces to listen, extend empathy, celebrate and engage,” Martin said.
A call for action
Programming for the Day of Dialogue & Action began Feb. 18 at the School of Medicine, which has always actively participated but for the first time extended its involvement to a full day of events.
Sessions included a timeline detailing the history of the desegregation of the Medical Campus, which prompted a discussion of inequity in the workplace; an introduction to mindfulness, which was also presented the next day on the Danforth Campus; a session led by Sherree Wilson, associate vice chancellor and associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion, on how to become “upstanders” instead of bystanders; the need to become a trauma-informed community that provides trauma-informed care; and a session on how to move from dialogue to action in working to create a more equitable city and campus community.
Later in the day, David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, inspired a call for action with the university’s support of the Healthcare for Missouri initiative – an effort to expand the state’s Medicaid program to cover more Missourians. The initiative is collecting signatures to put Medicaid expansion before Missouri voters in 2020.
“We know that at the end of the day our understanding of complex issues only matters if it inspires us toward action,” Perlmutter said. “We must act to end systemic inequality and to support policies and programs that will make our community a place where everyone can thrive. Action is what is needed today, now more than ever.”
Sultan’s keynote closed the first day’s programming, including a screening of her short film “Other People,” a snapshot of race relations in St. Louis set against the backdrop of a princess birthday party.
A frank and honest panel discussion followed that included Braveheart Gillani, a master of social work student at the Brown School; James Zerkel, a library assistant in the Bernard Becker Medical Library; Gmerice Hammond, MD, a cardiologist and health-care policy researcher at the School of Medicine; and Brown School alumna Bethany Johnson-Javois, chief executive officer of St. Louis Integrated Health Network and former managing director of the Ferguson Commission.
“Sometimes I get questioned about why am I making a film about small trivial things when there are huge things going on,” Sultan said. “Kids are getting shot in their schools, and I’m doing this? It’s because sometimes it takes a little small thing to change someone’s heart in one direction with a smaller step, and it builds a road somewhere.”
How we got here; where we go next
Programming moved to the Danforth Campus for the second day, Feb. 19, and began with Adrienne D. Davis, vice provost, the William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law and director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity, presenting an assessment of how far diversity and inclusion initiatives have come at the university.
“You have to believe in things that you don’t think are possible,” Davis said, noting where the university is now compared with where it had been. But she said it’s still an uphill battle. “We’re in the big leagues now,” she said.
A stunning presentation on “The Divided City” followed, which showcased the multifaceted nature of the collaboration between the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences and the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts’ College and Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design. From the poignant descriptions of the Prison Project by Sam Fox School lecturer Carolyn Gaidis, to the films on inequity and displacement produced by students of Denise Ward Brown, professor at the Sam Fox School, the session was thought-provoking and reflective — a microcosm of diversity and inclusion initiatives at the university.
“As an institution, we have made a statement that this is important and we want to move forward,” said Nicole Hudson, assistant vice chancellor at the Academy for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “We have lots of different communities that we serve. Those communities might have different visions for what it means to have an equitable and inclusive environment, and dealing with that tension is important to our work.”
An example of the scope that Hudson referenced was evident late in the morning of the second day, when a set of engagement sessions demonstrated the multidisciplinary nature of problem-solving that a university does best.
From the research-driven reasons for our biases from Calvin Lai, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences; to the “radical hospitality” of student services; to a hands-on workshop where participants explored culture change through the lens of university history; to the poetry of the acclaimed Aaron Coleman, a PhD candidate in comparative literature in Arts & Sciences and a Chancellor’s Fellow, it may well have been the most illuminating hour of the academic year.
“Poetry says things when we don’t have any other way to say it,” Coleman said.
One important trait that characterized past Days of Dialogue & Action was their participatory nature, and this year that was even more evident. The “In St. Louis, For St. Louis,” session, presented by Martin and Henry S. Webber, executive vice chancellor, was a roll-up-your-sleeves work session that involved frank talk and discussion among all participants present.
After Webber presented his research and the chancellor and Hudson spoke on some of their reactions to it, participants in Hillman Hall broke into small groups for a lengthy discussion regarding their own feelings and reactions, an exercise the chancellor admitted might make people feel vulnerable.
“If we want to be a high-performing community, then we need to give each other room to do a moderate amount of risk taking, we need to give one another space to speak and be seen, and we need to stick our necks out and let others stick their necks out without the fear of having our heads cut off,” Martin said. “This is the kind of atmosphere that leads to breakthroughs.”
In closing the day, Hudson referenced the student participants of the lunchtime session, “INSPIRE: Emerging Student Voices” in which student speakers gave 5-minute presentations on how they defined dialogue and action, diversity and inclusion. “How inspiring was that?” she asked. “We heard voices we hadn’t heard from all day. We heard solutions.”
“This is just the beginning,” Martin said. “We’re going to be talking about these ideas for decades to come.”
A slideshow of the event is below. To view the complete agenda for the event, or to watch a recording of sessions at the School of Medicine’s Eric P. Newman Education Center; Hillman Hall and Brown Hall, visit the Voices website.
Erika Ebsworth-Goold and Juli Leistner contributed to this story.