Backgrounds Program Cultivates Conversations on Diversity

A small group of students is taking the initiative to have serious, in-depth discussions about issues relating to diversity in the areas of race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, ability, and socioeconomic status.

Backgrounds, which is based around student-led discussion sessions, is in its pilot semester at Boston College. “A lot of students have their own interests, and they don’t stop to take the time to think about the interests of other students,” said Ricky Knapp, co-coordinator of the Campus Awareness department within UGBC and A&S ’14. “This brings together students who are interested in all different types of topics, and has them engage in discussion that they wouldn’t normally engage in with their peers on campus. If they’re interested in issues of sexual orientation, they can have these conversations-as well as in the context of class, or gender, race-it just expands the conversations that they’ll have.”

Knapp and co-director Nanci Fiore-Chettiar, a member of FACES and A&S ’15, formulated the program along with co-director Andrew Engber, A&S ’15. The three based the idea for Backgrounds off of the Dialogues on Race series (DOR), which is run by the Office of AHANA Student Programs (OASP) and FACES. Like DOR, Backgrounds is based around small student groups that meet for two-hour sessions for six weeks; unlike DOR, Backgrounds considers diversity issues besides race. The first half of each session focuses on talking about the issues in general, and during the second half, participants relate such diversity issues to their experiences at BC.

Sessions are on Wednesdays, from 5 to 7 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m., and began on Mar. 13. Each session consists of 12 students, who were admitted on a first-come, first-serve basis. According to Knapp and Fiore-Chettiar, both sessions were filled within two days, and a wait list began soon after. Backgrounds has run two sessions so far, and will continue through the end of the semester. The sessions are run by four undergraduate facilitators, with two assigned to each session: Jane Barry, LSOE ’14; Kristin Gordon, A&S ’15; Kate Saxton, A&S ’15; and William Hwang, A&S ’15.

Planning for Backgrounds began last semester, while Knapp was abroad, Fiore-Chettiar said. The co-directors conferred with on-campus resources such as Campus Ministry for religion, the Campus School for ability; the GLBTQ Leadership Council for sexual orientation; the WRC for gender; and FACES for race. The three co-directors of Backgrounds coordinated with Jennifer Wanandi, director of the Community Relations Department of UGBC-of which the Campus Awareness division is a subset-and A&S ’13. Wanandi had previously begun a similar program for in-classroom diversity efforts, also called Backgrounds-however, as the committee was no longer active, the name transferred to this semester’s pilot program.

Backgrounds is currently a program of the UGBC, implemented through the Campus Awareness division of the Cabinet. While the program’s management may change in the fall under the new UGBC structure, the current directors are hoping to expand Backgrounds nonetheless. “In the new UGBC, there does exist a new Campus Awareness committee,” Knapp said.

“What the new Campus Awareness does will probably be more solidified once they figure out what each division is going to be,” Fiore-Chettiar added. “Right now, UGBC is meeting with policy committees to try and form all the different divisions. We really hope that it will continue through [UGBC], because we think that it’s a really important program. If, for some reason, it doesn’t work out-I’m really hoping that’s not the case-then we’ll find another avenue.”

Although Backgrounds is still in the early stages, Knapp and Fiore-Chettiar have received positive feedback from participants and are looking into expanding the program in the future and even trying to institutionalize it. “I think that conversation in general is a really important part of raising awareness about different issues and different experiences, and I think that one of the unique things about [Backgrounds] is that you can learn about sexual orientation or race or gender in the context of how there’s oppression or privilege-all those other different aspects-but I think the fact that it’s unique to Boston College … the discussions that come out of that are a way to make sense of the culture that we live in, but also to become more aware of how other people experience those differences,” Fiore-Chettiar said. “It’s really about either affirming your own beliefs, or challenging them with other people’s opinions.

“We’ve met with OASP a couple of times, and they’ve said that if this program goes well, and they can see results from it and think that there is interest, they would be interested in speaking with us about maybe running it through their office at some point,” Fiore-Chettiar said.

Although the directors are pleased with the program so far, they are open to revising Backgrounds and expanding the program to a classroom setting. “I think the really great thing about keeping it among students is that you’re able to talk about things that you might not necessarily feel comfortable talking about with professors or faculty,” Fiore-Chettiar said. “Obviously the core is taking awhile … so this is a long-term vision kind of thing, but really what we want to do is bring this program to as many people as possible.”

About Eleanor Hildebrandt 92 Articles
Eleanor Hildebrandt was the 2014 Editor-in-Chief of The Heights. She liked puns then and it's a safe bet that she likes them now. Follow her on Twitter at @ehhilde.