Ricardo Nazario-Colón, Western Carolina University’s new chief diversity officer, is hosting a series of weekly “Tuesday Dialogues” at 2 p.m. in the Department of Intercultural Affairs to get acquainted with students and listen and respond to their concerns.
“First of all, it’s an opportunity to be in front of students on a regular basis,” Nazario-Colón said. “I hope to be getting to know the students, to speak to them about my role and share how to be of service to them, especially campus organizations. I want to be a resource and explain how I can help them create community; to point out natural linkages for them and connect them in ways they haven’t thought about in the past.”
Nazario-Colón said his concern is that many students attend college, but do not become part of the campus community. “We want students to feel a part of the university, not apart from it,” he said. “Students from underrepresented populations don’t always feel a part of the university and sometimes feel marginalized. We want them to know that this is their university, too. They should claim every inch of grass and floor and pavement.”
The Tuesday Dialogues are an outgrowth of Chancellor David Belcher’s call for a series of campus discussion groups following racially charged and anonymous social media postings prior to spring break. About one month later – and only a few days after he had begun working at WCU – Nazario-Colón emailed the campus to recommend counseling resources and announce plans for a campus dialogue in the wake of the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, two African-American men in their 30s.
Those “civil discourses” provided a foundation for a more planned response. “There’s an expectation that we can build community that we began there,” Nazario-Colón said. “Now, we have an opportunity to be on the front end of things rather than the back end – and to be in touch with these challenges.”
Nazario-Colón said he recognizes that he cannot be the sole resource for responding to diversity challenges on campus. “I’m not the know-it-all,” he said. “I hope we latch on to voices that we already hear as resources. I want to be able to find the people who know about diversity and can help. There are good folks here who get it – and they need to feel empowered to help. We’re in a good place.”
Beyond the Tuesday Dialogues, he hopes to establish an opportunity for a more formal conversation, taking advantage of the expertise on campus. “I’m trying to find a consistent location for a monthly dialogue on diversity to bring in experts from the university to give presentations on, for instance, disability and accessibility, campus safe zones and training for how people can become LGBT allies,” he said. “My hope is for a series of maybe 10 of those particular subjects, enjoyed together with a brown bag lunch. Out of occasions like these comes community building, and with them we can tackle additional subjects like multiracial identity and gender identity.
“We are at a point in the evolution of our nation and world where we’re asked to redefine concepts that have traditionally been binary – black and white, male and female. We have a lot of identification fluidity on ethnicity and gender. The population is moving faster than our institutions.
“It may take 10 or 50 years to see what that looks like,” he said. “What will that imply for marginalized populations?”
Nazario-Colón said he is pleased with the outcomes of the conversations so far. “We’ve gathered good information about what people thought, for instance, when the ideal of free speech was challenged … knowing that communities like free speech but not hate speech. Some students were talking about free speech and others were talking about survival, saying ‘The threat to my existence is not acceptable.’”
As an educator, Nazario-Colón said, that conflict makes him and his colleagues rethink how civics is being taught – or not taught. “Should it be taught in secondary or higher education settings? Is there an opportunity for student organizations and events based on civics? What is a priority to a student and what isn’t? Students will want solutions or tools for when they leave. It should be part of our responsibility to produce an educated individual who not only might make a contribution to society but who can definitely fit within it.”
In the meantime, Nazario-Colón said his initial goal for Tuesday Dialogues is to create community. “We need to make diversity part of our normal conversations. When we’re talking about it, we need to not just be talking about it, but also living it.”
“I look forward to people wanting to be their best self,” he said. “When you try to better yourself as an individual, you do a holistic improvement of yourself. You treat others better, battle against injustice and for social justice, respect differences and feel part of a whole – instead of feeling marginalized or thinking that you cannot contribute.”
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be challenges, Nazario-Colón said. “If students can’t be in the space where people don’t like them, and it is a sensitive space to navigate, we need to be an institution that is aware of that,” he said. “We need to help them express feelings in a productive way and provide a safe environment for those expressions. If they can’t occur on a university campus where selves and ideas develop, where else can they?
“I’m interested in making things better than they already are,” Nazario-Colón said. “That’s why I came here.”
By Keith Brenton