Many Voices strives to talk about campus diversity

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Chancellor Phyllis Wise introduces the first speaker in the Many Voices series, Erin McConahey, last Thursday. Erin McConahey discussed unconscious bias and how welcoming diversity can benefit society as a whole.

By Darrah Perryman

Six lectures. Six speakers. Six conversations on diversity. 

This is one answer to the diversity problem that some claim the University has.

At a time of heightened racial tensions, the Many Voices series brings six speakers to the University who will discuss their experiences with diversity in their respective fields.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise, Inclusive Illinois representatives, college deans and other campus offices partnered to create the series after campus leaders went to a diversity institute last fall. After the conference, leaders discussed ways to foster diversity conversations on campus and the idea for the series was born, said Menah Pratt-Clarke, associate provost for diversity.

“These speakers are really about giving the campus and units tools to use to continue the conversation,” Pratt-Clarke said.

The 2014 freshmen class had fewer African-Americans than when Project 500 was enforced in 1968. As a response, Champaign activists held a press conference on Feb. 27, where they went public with a letter they wrote to the Board of Trustees asking that Wise’s contract not be renewed.

Their letter outlined the failure of the University to recruit African American students within the Champaign-Urbana community and the lack of faculty diversity.

Wise described an inclusive Illinois as a welcoming, affirming, respectful environment that gives deep thought to race, background, religion, sexuality and gender during her introduction of Erin McConahey’s lecture on March 5.

The chancellor also elaborated on the purpose of the series, which she said is to make sure every voice is heard.

“We encourage you to share your voice and learn from others, and together we can lead the campus into developing a new vision for welcoming an inclusive Illinois,” Wise said.

During her presentation, McConahey discussed unconscious bias and how diversity can create a better environment and society. The lecture highlighted why diversity is important and essential for growth, despite the misconception that discussions about diversity are no longer needed. Inclusion, she said, is something we create for one another.

“It’s something we have to do intentionally because it is too easy to fall into in groups and cliques,” McConahey said. “We lose intellectual capital when people feel afraid to contribute.” 

Ben Deese, associate IT specialist at Engineering IT Shared Services, attended McConahey’s talk and was specifically interested in creating a more welcoming environment for international students. 

“A lot of my friends are international students and one of the biggest issues is being able to talk to them,” Deese said. “Sometimes their English skills, through no fault of their own, are not at that fluent level and a friendship cannot caress because the understanding cannot happen.”

After the lecture, he said he was excited to apply McConahey’s advice about creating diverse environments.

In addition to the six guest lecturers, there will also be campus-wide discussions held on March 30 and 31 where students can voice their opinions on diversity and school spirit. 

“I would like to see a lot of students come out on March 30 and 31 to really make their voices be heard,” Pratt-Clarke said. 

Every lecture is targeted toward the entire campus community, Pratt-Clarke said. The next lecture will take place on March 17 at 3 p.m. in the National Center for Supercomputing Applications Auditorium. The speaker, Derald Wing Sue of the Teachers College Columbia, will discuss race and overcoming racism.

McConahey said she hopes her presence on campus, and the series as a whole, will give people permission to start talking about diversity.

“We all need to create an inclusive environment … because at some point, it might be us on the other side,” McConahey said. “If we haven’t created an environment where everyone can contribute and everyone feels that they belong, we will suffer as a society.”

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