The PostScript

Columbia College encourages courageous conversations

Left+-+Right%3A+Kara+Simmons%2C+moderator%3B+and+Felicia+Sanders+and+Polly+Shepard%2C+survivors+of+the+Emanuel+9%2C+receive+keys+to+the+City+of+Columbia+at+the+year%E2%80%99s+final+S.P.E.A.R.S.+Table+Talk.%0APhoto+credit%3A+Tamara+Burk%2C+Ph.D.%0A
Left - Right: Kara Simmons, moderator; and Felicia Sanders and Polly Shepard, survivors of the Emanuel 9, receive keys to the City of Columbia at the year’s final S.P.E.A.R.S. Table Talk.
Photo credit: Tamara Burk, Ph.D.

Left - Right: Kara Simmons, moderator; and Felicia Sanders and Polly Shepard, survivors of the Emanuel 9, receive keys to the City of Columbia at the year’s final S.P.E.A.R.S. Table Talk. Photo credit: Tamara Burk, Ph.D.

Left - Right: Kara Simmons, moderator; and Felicia Sanders and Polly Shepard, survivors of the Emanuel 9, receive keys to the City of Columbia at the year’s final S.P.E.A.R.S. Table Talk. Photo credit: Tamara Burk, Ph.D.

Lauren Fleming, co-editor

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Columbia College is exerting renewed effort to promote diversity and inclusion on campus.

After a shocking, black face incident on campus in 2016, the college has faced redefining its identity as a leader in such a crisis and answering the call to action the situation prompted.

“When the black face incident happened, my mom and I had different perspectives,” Grace Mozie, sophomore studio art major, said.

“My mom went to school here in the 1980s, and so she was impressed, but surprised, to see the college taking action, instead of sweeping it under the rug like when she went to school here. As a current student, I knew they would handle it well. And in light of the current political climate, I think it is as important as ever to continue the efforts made and conversations had past that particular incident. It doesn’t need to just serve as a reaction, but a part of who we are.”

One of the initiatives Mozie refers to that promotes healthy conversations about race and other issues of social justice is the S.P.E.A.R.S. Table Talk series.

The S.P.E.A.R.S. Table Talk series stands for speaking with purpose, engaging in advocacy and reconciling social justice. It is a series of “courageous conversations” to engage, enlighten and encourage students of color, according to Tamara Burk, Ph.D, professor of communication and leadership and the director of both the P.L.A.C.E. Fellows Program and Leadership Center, and Kara Simmons, adjunct professor of communication and leadership.

The overall goal of the courageous conversations was to “create a safe platform where students didn’t necessarily have to talk about the situation that’s frustrating but hear from others who have been in their seats before. It was to find a common ground to have a hard conversation,” Simmons said.

She wanted people to leave feeling impacted and encouraged with an understanding of how to move forward instead of upset by the difficult topics each S.P.E.A.R.S. Table Talk included.

Burk and Simmons led the effort by planning and executing this year’s three table talks.

The Courage to Lead, the first table talk, featured Wes Bellamy, Ph.D., vice-mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia. Bellamy spoke on his experience facing challenges as a minority and millennial politician.

The Commitment to Serve, the second in the series, consisted of a panel of Columbia leaders. Panelists included Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, the Rev. Tiffany Knowlin, the Honorable DeAndrea Benjamin and Helen Grant, Ph.D.

Devine was the first African American female to serve on Columbia City Council and the first African American to be elected at-large. Knowlin was the first African American and the first woman to serve College Place United Methodist Church.

Benjamin serves as a circuit judge and is the first African American first lady of Columbia. Grant is the first Chief Diversity Officer for Richland Two school district.

The year’s final table talk, The Confidence to Lead, featured two special guests from Charleston. Felicia Sanders and Polly Shepard were two of the three survivors of the Emanuel 9, the murder of nine members of Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E Church by white supremacist Dylann Roof, 24, of Columbia.

Sanders and Shepard spoke about forgiveness and love as necessary steps in their healing journey.

Each table talk presented an opportunity for the audience – students, faculty, staff and off-campus guests – to ask questions and engage with the speakers.

Thalia Watkins, first-year psychology and studio art double major, attended The Confidence to Lead. “I felt like it wasn’t censored. It was honest and something many of us needed to hear,” Watkins said of the program.

“We’re not afraid to have uncomfortable conversations here, and you can tell the school actually cares to get everyone involved. It’s a priority at this college.”

Watkins was not aware of the black face incident and provides a new perspective on the college’s leadership and social justice efforts.

The table talks were based on the Four Cs of Leadership framework the college already has in place. The Four Cs of Leadership are courage, commitment, confidence and competence.

These are used as descriptors of Columbia College students’ leadership experience throughout their four years. Burk and Simmons aimed to tie their initiative of courageous conversations about social justice to the existing conversation we have about leadership.

“Leadership and social justice are the identity of Columbia College,” Simmons said. “There may be different waves, but it’s the one area in which most women have a passion for. Women are natural born leaders.”

The college is becoming more intentionally intersectional as it addresses different issues of leadership and social justice. “Diversity and inclusion feel like different things,” Simmons said.

Allison Maldonado-Ruiz, graduate assistant for the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Community Resources, said that our values as a college have always been to create brave and safe spaces, but their work to become even more present and active increased after the black face incident.

After the incident, the diversity resource room for marginalized identities moved into a bigger room to allow more students access. This space includes the Koala Pantry, meditation room, prayer room, quiet space, nursing room, chairs and couches in a circle for open discussion and work spaces for homework or crafts.

The Diversity Peer Educators program also started in this department after the incident in 2016. This organization is open to faculty, staff and students to learn about and teach difficult conversations and practice how to talk to other people about the same topics. They have hosted meetings and events regarding ableism, religion, race, sexual orientation and others.

Both Maldonado-Ruiz and Simmons touched on wishing the efforts for courageous conversations on campus weren’t so departmentalized.

“I’d like to see a very prominent effort in every space on campus that is supportive of students of all backgrounds and identities,” Maldonado-Ruiz said. “I think sometimes what we do is a little reactive instead of addressing things before they happen. I would love for my office to not have to exist because everyone is always treated with equity and kindness.”

“Just because we’re having these conversations doesn’t mean we’re including everyone in the conversation,” Simmons said. “We have to realize our population has changed over the years, but our administration and marketing don’t reflect that. I feel like our faculty and staff need to be a representation of our students.”

The S.P.E.A.R.S. Table Talk series is being considered for next year though Simmons believes the initiative could use more buy-in from students.

“I would love to continue the series; it was well received by the community,” Simmons said. “We just don’t have complete buy-in from students yet that this is something we’re invested in.”

Other opportunities to continue the courageous conversations include the Diversity Retreat, held every spring, and the Courage Pinning Ceremony for eligible and invited seniors on April 24 at 12 p.m. in Mitzi’s Garden behind the bookstore on campus.

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