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Job well done, but future diversity programs need more ‘class’

Published: August 31, 2012
Section: Opinions


As an orientation leader two years ago, I walked my six new students, with a bit of trepidation, to that year’s version of orientation’s program on diversity. A year before as a first-year myself, I had sat down in Hassenfeld and witnessed a presentation of racial and anti-gay slurs aimed to provoke our introspection. My own OL had apologized in advance, but I was not fully prepared for the menu of discomfort I ended up experiencing.

And now I had to lead my six kids into what the 2010 CORE committee called “the Tunnel of Oppression.”

Part of me really liked facing uncomfortable truths and statistics, but I was anxious as an OL because I knew some of my aide-lets may not feel the same way.

Whether you liked past diversity programs or not, this year’s team had something entirely new in mind. And according to CORE member Sam Gordon ’14, who directed the program this year, the diversity program was designed specifically to move away from the uncomfortable, offensive-assault approach.

Gordon’s direction is to celebrate instead the diversity that Brandeis has to offer.

This year, new students enter into five unique spaces—one each for touch, smell, sound, sight and even taste. In the touch room, for example, there are traditional Indian garments to feel and even wear; the touch room also contains representations of symbols of many religions and traditions one can, as Gordon put it, “physically interact with.”

The same approach of hers is the reason the smell room has jasmine sticks, cinnamon and other spices and herbs from around the world to experience. The taste area is similar. The hearing room? It contains the five CORE members, Jamele Adams and President Fred Lawrence talking about what diversity means to them. The sight room retained a small amount of the old, with statistics on homosexuality and faith but with none of the disturbing images or hateful words that remained unexplained.

I was not oppressed and more than a little impressed.

The program will not provoke as much uncomfortable rethinking or inward-looking reflection, and that is a shame. But on most of the major issues, the celebratory program succeeds and even exceeds the old style of in-your-face diversity.

The buzzword for Gordon’s take could be multiculturalism. The touch, smell and taste rooms especially have hit this goal head on. For instance, I had never before worn a saree.

There were smells I knew were saffron or jasmine from various restaurants I’ve visited but seeing the connection between my olfactory sense and a unique culture were worth the visit through the program. And Sam’s point was even starker: How many people at Brandeis had never before held, let alone handled and caressed, a cross?

This theme of opening viewers’ eyes to things they may in the past have only read or heard about consumes Gordon’s entire project. “Instead of staring at things,” she says, “diversity needs to be experienced.”

The one area where the presentation falls short is its capturing of class distinctions and the differences associated with divergent income groups. As fitting with other parts of the Brandeis experience, the diversity program handles countering homophobia and racism very well. But perhaps because of how tolerant Brandeis often is in these areas, Brandeis students should especially be made aware of the many different lifestyle choices and background variations that come from living a life in which some needs just simply are not met. There were some statistics about global poverty and housing rates, but knowing that one of a hundred people have a computer, worldwide, is different than realizing that a solid one-fifth of the children in America don’t always eat in a day. And half of America makes less the $55,000 a year.

Gordon for her part admitted that “I wish I could have done more about class.” She said that many Brandeis students, before coming here, lived in their “own little world, but should see how others live.”

Gordon’s own past is no silver spoon getaway. She works as many jobs on campus as she can, currently two and searching for a third. She will be in debt up to her eyeballs when she graduates. And all of her loans are taken out alone, in her own name.

Her description differs from so many of us here, who thankfully have parents who have been more fortunate financially, or able to receive so much more federal aid. And even among students on near-total aid packages, of which there are few here, the background differences can be as determinative as between people of different races, nationalities and/or religions.

And Gordon said that these vast consequences that differences in wealth bring are exactly why Brandeis programs should increase their consciousness of class in further years. When asked if she would acknowledge her program as lacking in awareness, she said that she hopes this year is a “stepping stone” to future diversity programs.

We need programs that are not only more interactive, like Gordon’s, but more attuned to the diversity awareness Brandeis really needs.

Gordon did have some good ideas, some unfortunately that were not included in the current program. She wondered aloud about a “Game of Life” activity that would have incoming first-years play people from different walks of life, and try to experience the differences income levels can make.

Getting a simple loan to try to move up the ladder, buying a safe car, even going to the dentist the recommended number of times—these are just a few examples of problems a number of students’ families at Brandeis have had to face. They are, however, large, endemic problems for so many Americans.

Some parents, in order to pay for college, put off their own retirement plans, shortchange younger children’s future or simply go without what some of us would consider necessities—like health insurance. Some families at Brandeis, no matter how few, have never taken a vacation and cannot afford to send their student home for the holidays and breaks.

Next year’s orientation diversity program should perhaps look a little closer to home. I am happy to learn about Japanese cuisine or wear the saree. Some of my classmates have stories that might be uncomfortable to hear, but as such, are all the more important to hear.