Duo helps UNH navigate ‘difficult’ topics

By MELISSA RUSSELL

Granite State News Collaborative

Published: 09-22-2023 5:19 PM

University of New Hampshire education graduate students, Shantel Palacio and Nathan Harris expected their fellow students would be eager to discuss societal issues impacting education, even those that are controversial or sensitive.

But that’s not what they encountered in one of their graduate classes. Blame it on the fiery political and social climate of the times, but Palacio and Harris said classmates were uncomfortable digging into hot-button topics, particularly around race, often bringing classroom conversations to a halt.

“We were excited to discuss policy, but we could not get to it because there was this fear and anxiety around mentioning something like race,” said Palacio, currently working on her dissertation in the UNH Leadership and Policy Studies track. “Not only were we deprived of sharing our perspectives, but we were deprived of our classmates’ perspectives.”

“We saw this as an opportunity to engage, to have a dialogue and it didn’t happen,” said Harris, also in the Leadership and Policy Studies program. “We were both disappointed. It was a blown opportunity.”

Their disappointment led to concern and conversations: If this self-stifling was happening at a university where students should be able to share perspectives and debate issues, what was happening in the world outside, where people do not have safe spaces dedicated to respectful conversations, questions and debate?

It became clear that students, faculty, staff and those outside the school community needed a place to respectfully explore so-called difficult topics of contemporary society and to listen to each other with reassurance that they could have conversations without fear of making mistakes or saying something awkward.

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Thus, in 2020, Palacio and Harris, with support from Dovev Levine, assistant dean for graduate student affairs and assistant vice provost for outreach and engagement, created Beyond the Border: A Critical Dialogue Series. The programs bring New Hampshire-based professionals together with their counterparts outside the state to discuss such potentially contentious issues as diversity, policing, pathways to success, meritocracy, disability and inclusivity.

In order to encourage audience engagement and robust participation, Palacio and Harris start with titles designed to acknowledge the complications inherent in the discussion, such as “Diversity is a Dirty Word,” “Meritocracy is a Dirty Word,” and “Disability: Inclusivity and Reality.”

The titles, according to Harris, put audience discomfort right up front. “We know the word diversity was a trigger for some people, that it had different narratives around it, that it was complicated,” he said in an interview on New Hampshire PBS’s program “The State We’re In,”

By diffusing that discomfort, and giving participants permission to hold opinions opposing the guest speaker, Palacio and Harris set a tone encouraging respectful and productive conversation, according to Levine.

There have been five sessions so far, all conducted virtually, with the first live program to debut later this month.

Participation has been robust, with 50 to 200 participants, including students, on each call, from the university and beyond, Palacio and Harris said.

“At one point we thought we broke Zoom because there were so many people who wanted to have the conversation,” Palacio said.

Levine credited Palacio and Harris for fostering a climate designed to encourage participation. “I knew it was going well when people stayed on after the Zoom – we had to create what we called the afterparty – people hung on way past the hour was done because they wanted to keep talking,” he said.

Levine said rather than feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the subject matter, people were “enlivened.”

“It lifted them as opposed to leaving them with heavy hearts – that was just an impressive feat,” he said. “They discussed really tough stuff with a sense of hope, community and optimism – that’s what struck me most.”

Commenting on “The State We’re In,” Palacio said the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a loss of community and connection, while the nation’s racial reckoning in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd created a climate where people want to connect, but are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Social media, Harris added, has added to the situation where people can “just send barbs out, and not communicate.”

“You watch teenagers or adults have a whole conversation just using their phones and never engaging, that’s not what we used to do,” he said. “So now, when you throw a difficult topic matter into the mix, it makes it even harder.”

While it may be harder to have civil and productive conversations about “tough stuff” without devolving into a yelling match or silence, Levine said the model developed by Palacio and Harris clearly works.

“We think there is scaling up we can do to turn out more people, to have the same conversations, which people clearly want to have,” he said.

The key to hosting a successful conversation, Palacio and Harris agree, is setting the tone at the outset and giving participants permission to “be raggedy and make mistakes,” Palacio said.

“We need to have spaces, to be able to engage and ask questions and even make mistakes. The university setting is a perfect space to be able to ask questions. I think folks need the space to explore conversations they’ve never had before,” she said.

“We let folks know they don’t have to agree with what’s being said, but to take time and engage in active listening and get a different perspective, or to hear the same perspective in a different way,” she said.

To date, speakers have included law professor Rachel Godsil, co-founder of the Perception Institute and Dr. Dottie Morris, the chief officer of diversity and multiculturalism at Keene State College, who discussed racial and social justice; Dr. Mauriciere de Govia, a leadership strategist and executive superintendent for New York City’s Department of Education and Dr. Jahmal Mosley, superintendent of the Nashua Public Schools discussing equality of educational opportunity; Robert Quinn, New Hampshire commissioner of public safety and Benjamin B. Tucker, first deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department discussing building safe communities with Jerika L. Richardson, senior vice president for equitable justice and strategic initiatives a the National Urban League; Grammy-award winning producer John Forte and Eric Logan, of Industrial Manufacturing Strategy on access and pathways to success; and Emmy-nominated director Dan Habib discussing diversity, equity, disability and inclusion with Danielle N. Williams, founder and CEO of S.T.I.G.M.A. consulting group.

The next conversations will be bolder and more ambitious, Harris said, moving from virtual to live events.

“There are a whole lot of extra risks when you do something in person, versus something on Zoom,” he said.

On Sept. 28, the first in-person session will address challenges faced by researchers, exploring whether the right questions are being asked about housing, education, policy, economics and other topics. Dr. Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities” is the guest speaker. Perry is a nationally known commentator on race, structural inequality, education and economic inclusion.

“If we can create even more of a community of people where we can have a cohesive and sustained conversation about difficult and challenging things, we think that would be really healthy for our area, for ourselves, for faculty and staff – to continue to learn together and talk in ways we think are relevant, helpful and gets us to a better place,” Levine said.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.]]>