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Let's Talk 

Faculty and staff heard about ways to make classroom discussion and the campus environment more inclusive. (Photo by Mark Schmidt)  

ALBANY, N.Y. (Sept. 19, 2016) – Patricia Gurin was the University of Michigan’s expert witness on the value of diversity in defending its affirmative action cases at the Supreme Court. Last week, the renowned social psychologist held dialogues with faculty, staff and students at “Let’s Talk,” presented by the UAlbany Collaboratively Creating Excellence, Scholarship and Success (UACCESS )initiative.

According to Gurin, continuing racial segregation and the belief in colorblindness are the two major factors contributing to racial division in the U.S.

In one exercise, Gurin showed that many hesitate to ask questions about race. This hesitation is due to the fear of looking ignorant, the fear of offending someone or of looking stupid, she said. But it gets in the way of honest conversation.

However, the institutions that are savvy do not avoid talking about race, she noted. She gave faculty and staff advice on how to incorporate student storytelling, increase active listening, and encouraged them to ask how and why questions about race that promote student discussion instead of stifling it. 

In a dynamic afternoon session with students, Gurin asked, “How many of you identify as Caucasian?” she asked. Some students stood up.

“How many of you identify as African American?” Other students stood up. “Asian?” still more.

She started with differences like race and gender, and then moved to less visible differences.

Then, “how many of you know someone with a mental illness?” Almost everyone stood. “How many of you know someone who has attempted suicide?” Again, many stood up. The things few people talk about turned out to be a common thread for many.

To develop empathy for people who do not look like us, Gurin stressed that active listening is key.

For another exercise she had one person at each table describe an important cultural tradition in their family.

Leiry (pronounced Lady) Santos, a UAlbany alum and residence hall director, described her family tradition of El Dia De Los Reyes Magos, the Three Kings’ Day, January 6. Instead of celebrating Christmas on December 25, this holiday celebrates the visit of the three kings to see the baby Jesus. Santos grew up in the Dominican Republic.

On the night of Jan. 5, Santos's family set out water, grass and cookies for the kings’ camels.

As a little girl, she made sure there was extra water and grass to feed the camels so that they would leave lots of presents.

As she described her cultural tradition, others at her table were assigned to listen to her story and observe.

Santos earned a bachelor’s degree from UAlbany in 2013 and a master’s degree in 2015.

“This event helped me understand how I can better train the CHARGE peer educators,” Santos said. CHARGE is a campus group that teaches other students about diversity.

Gurin’s visit was the first in a series of conversations this semester on topics that impact the UAlbany community. Her talk was sponsored by The Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Institute for Teaching, Learning and Academic Leadership and Student Affairs.

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