Training Students to Talk About Race

Esther Nunoo reads her poem, "Talking about Talking."

Esther Nunoo ’17, who is part of the Intergroup Dialogue program, reads her poem, “Talking about Talking.” The poem explores her frustration with the confusion, silences and stigmas she experiences around topics such as race, privilege and religion.

Fifteen students are participating in a new training program at Bowdoin this semester, learning to talk to their peers about a topic that makes many of us clam right up — race.

Once they are trained, these students will be prepared to lead conversations among any student groups that request it, such as sports teams and the student government. The goal is to get Bowdoin speaking about how race is played out, both on campus and off.

Facilitated by Leana Amaez, Bowdoin’s associate dean for multicultural student programs, and Mike Felton, associate director of Residential Life, the training program is called Intergroup Dialogue. It is based on similar models being adopted by other colleges and universities across the country.

This past summer, Amaez hired Yiran “Elina” Zhang ’16 and Catalina Gallagher ’16 to research which race reconciliation programs other schools are using. After studying models at Tufts, Hamilton, Dartmouth, Wellesley and a few more places, Zhang and Gallagher adapted a program for Bowdoin based on a program created at University of Michigan 25 years ago.

Elina Zhang ’16

Elina Zhang ’16, with Catalina Gallagher ’16, pictured below, helped create the Intergroup Dialogue training program

Now is an ideal time to launch Bowdoin’s Intergroup Dialogue program, according to Amaez. With the turbulence in Ferguson over a white police officer’s killing of unarmed black teenager — and other recent headlines about excessive police violence against people of color — the United States is in a particularly self-reflective moment. “It’s a moment in time when racial issues are brought to the forefront in the society and at Bowdoin,” she said.

At the same time, Amaez continued, students have been asking how to make talking about race and identity part of Bowdoin’s culture, so that the topic isn’t discussed only in a classroom or by a handful of interested students. To cement the program here, Amaez wants to train a group of students each year as Intergroup Dialogue facilitators.

Catalina Gallagher ’16

Catalina Gallagher ’16

Though Zhang said she has been interested in, and vocal about, social issues surrounding race since taking a Bowdoin course on Asian-American identities, she is also sensitive to the difficulties some people have talking about race. She is majoring in Asian Studies and grew up in Alabama after her parent emigrated from China. “The Intergroup Dialogue restores my faith in people’s interest and willingness to engage,” she said. “I’m excited to get more and more people engaged in the conversation.”

Talking about Race, Talking about Talking
Jennifer Stollman, the academic director of the Winter Institute in Mississippi, offered one of Intergroup Dialogue’s trainings this semester and also gave a talk on campus. Before she began her lecture, Stollman invited Esther Nunoo ’17 to read a poem to the audience. Nunoo presented her piece, “Talking About Talking,” which begins, “We talk a lot about talking here…” Read excerpts from the poem.

The training teaches student facilitators how to create a non-threatening, non-adversarial space for people of different backgrounds to come together.

In the workshop sessions, Amaez and Felton emphasize the personal side of race. “From the start, it’s been different from anything I have ever done before,” Gallagher said. Gallagher’s mother is from Chile and her father is of Irish and Mexican descent. She grew up in New Mexico. “[Amaez and Felton] push us to connect the issues to ourselves personally…If you engage academically or intellectually with these topics, you can convince yourself that you have the right idea. But when you open up you recognize all the complexities.”

Zhang said the training has forced her to peer more closely into her own judgements. “I feel like it’s made me constantly rework how I process my own assumptions,” she said. “I have a lot of stereotypes and I need to confront them and admit to them before I can change my perception of them.”

Becoming self-reflective is part of how one becomes adept at leading conversations about race, Zhang continued. “It makes us more empathic,” she said. “Admitting my struggles helps me recognize other people’s struggles.”

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