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Nationwide Now: Continuing Critical Conversations

By JB Clark

University Communications

As the nation reckoned with inequities in race, health care, policing, politics and education — all amid a global pandemic — one University of Mississippi division led real-time community conversations in hopes of bringing communities together.

The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement’s Dialogues on Diversity series steered into the uncertainty of 2020 by moving its ongoing series into collaborative Zoom and programming events around some of the themes most prevalent in the national discourse.

The series was created to engage students, faculty and staff in honest, yet challenging, dialogues that promote systemic change, which made the program uniquely suited to address the many pressing issues revealed throughout the previous year, said Shawnboda Mead, interim vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement.

“From disparities related to the COVID-19 pandemic to those in education systems, many painful inequities were magnified over the past year,” Mead said. “Therefore, the 2020-21 Dialogues on Diversity Series was an opportunity for critical conversations about these inequities and the roles we play in addressing them both on our campus and within our communities.

“Although we had to shift to virtual delivery, our team recognized the importance of elevating these conversations on our campus and creating space to further explore varying perspectives. All of the facilitators helped expand our knowledge and left us with tools to actively address inequities.”

Tanya Nichols, project manager, and Brittany Brown, graduate assistant, noticed the issues their office focuses on every day were coming up in conversations at home and around the country. With that realization, they worked to increase the number of Dialogues on Diversity events in the fall and spring semesters, all organized around the theme “Nationwide Now.”

The fall 2020 series featured three conversations on the topics of inequity in the pandemic, in policing and in politics and were led by faculty from the UM Medical Center’s School of Population Health and the departments of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies, Political Science, Public Policy Leadership and African American Studies, all on the Oxford campus.

“I think those diversity conversations are simply amazing and vital,” said Dr. Leandro Mena, director of the Center for HIV/AIDS Research and Education and Policy who participated in the “Inequities in the Pandemic” conversation.

“When COVID appeared and there were reports of disparities in Black populations, it was evident to many of us working in the field of HIV because we have seen the same story happening over the last 40 years with HIV. The impact of discrimination is real in Black populations and reflects in the health of Black populations.”

This spring, the conversation series continued with a focus on higher education. The first event, “Protests in Higher Education,” featured a screening of the student-produced documentary “Black Power at Ole Miss,” an intergenerational panel discussion with student activists. The second event, “Prison and Higher Education,” featured and interactive panel discussion with the co-founders of the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program.

The final event of the spring semester, “Privilege in Higher Education,” featured a discussion led by professors in the Department of Higher Education.

Phillis George, an associate professor of higher education who participated in the latter panel, said that for systemic change to happen, these conversations must flow out from the leaders in the diversity, equity and inclusion space and into the campus community.

“The work of diversity, equity and inclusion belongs to all of us, not just some of us,” she said. “We’re grateful to our colleagues in (the Department of) Diversity and Community Engagement. They’re our leaders on campus, but they have to have willing participants and collaborators.

“So, all of us are critical stakeholders in this regard. That includes students, staff, faculty and our campus leadership. All of us work collaboratively to promote diversity, equity and inclusion on campus.”

Stronger Together, the division’s other conversation series, also added programming to help the campus community heal. The series hosted “The Quest for Justice in America” on April 22, to facilitate discussions around the Derek Chauvin trial, its outcomes and what they mean for community members.

The feedback submitted by on- and off-campus participants has encouraged the staff to keep their momentum and continue to address important topics across the community, Nichols said.

Past conversations and news of upcoming events can be found on the Dialogues on Diversity page.

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