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Students take MLK day to learn about diversity

1-22-2019

Jeremiah Hassel, Features Editor

Monday, in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (MLK Day), the Office of Educational Equity and Diversity Programs featured their first documentary viewing at their annual campus family gathering event in the McGarvey Commons in the Reed Union Building. The event served as part of their annual MLK Day commemoration week. This year, the theme for the week is Your Life, My Life: One Horizon, which aims to perpetuate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and bring the Penn State Behrend community together.

        Entering the Commons, attendees were treated to an assortment of refreshments, including donuts, cookies, and beverages ranging from ice water to coffee, before being invited to sit at any of the number of large circular tables around the room. A large projector screen hung at the front of the room showcasing the documentary, a short film entitled “Remixing Colorblind”, as well as a video chat with the documentary’s producer and director, Dr. Sheena Howard, an associate professor of communication at Rider University.

        “When we talk about diversity, we’re not only focusing on our differences, but it’s important that we discuss our similarities as well. … We want to be able to bring the campus community together from diverse backgrounds to learn from one another, to hear one another,” said Walaa Ahmad, the associate director for the Office of Educational Equity and Diversity Programs.

        The documentary touched on a number of controversial and important topics regarding racism, reverse racism, and various forms of bias in a multitude of institutional situations, including conversations with guidance counselors, teachers, and peers. Students and faculty alike were encouraged to ask questions and share stories about their personal experiences battling such discrimination, some even addressing Dr. Howard directly over the video chat and asking for input or advice.

        “Many of these topics that relate or that revolve around race relations that are very delicate, we feel that a college campus provides a great forum or a medium to have those conversations, so that’s why we do this. Our goal was to hopefully provide opportunities for our campus communities to come together,” said Andy Herrera, the director of the Office of Educational Equity and Diversity Programs.

        Going into the event, Herrera and other members of Behrend’s administration hoped the documentary and open video chat discussion with Dr. Howard would create a safe environment for students and faculty of all backgrounds to come together and work toward the future of unity on campus, an ideal derived directly from Dr. King himself. Members of administration also hoped those in attendance would gain valuable insight on several aspects of diversity and the strife of those fighting for the same ideals who came before them.

        “I think this was a good opportunity for the students to learn a little bit about the insight of what goes on from an administrative perspective in terms of diversity,” said Gerald James, the assistant director of Student Affairs. James was also impressed with the technologies available to contemporary generations that allowed Dr. Howard to be present at the event despite being unable to physically attend due to the weather.

        Several students attended the event to take advantage of the opportunities for open discussion and the safe, comfortable environment to talk about racism and other factors the event touched on. Others attended for classes or other personal reasons.

One such student was fifth semester junior and business economics major Austin Johnson, who holds several positions around campus and has involved himself in several organizations committed to promoting diversity and acceptance. “I’ve always been very inclined to diversity and taking other things into consideration. I think you should weigh all the factors. I think it touched very well on how people react to it and just presenting and showcasing how we go about our daily lives,” said Johnson.

This week, the Office of Educational Equity and Diversity Programs will host several other events in commemoration of the life of Dr. King, including a civil rights documentary Tuesday, a workshop for high schoolers on Wednesday, and a workshop for middle schoolers on Friday. Students are encouraged to attend to learn about the various ways diversity can impact daily life and how they can learn to be more open to diversity on campus.

“When we take the time to learn from one another, …we understand better about that person. …I think it’s important that we host events like this that will bring people from different ethnicities together to share their thoughts, their ideas, and [sic] their commonalities,” said Ahmad.