Kofi Thomas and Kevin Martins present at Bryant's third annual Day of Understanding
Keynote speaker Kofi Thomas, director of The People's Garden, founder and director of The Good Life Garden, and chairman of the Neighborhood Advisory Board for Bushwick, discussed the power of collective action with Kevin Martins, Ed.D., Assistant Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as part of Bryant's third annual Day of Understanding.
Building community: Bryant's third annual Day of Understanding inspires action
Nov 03, 2022, by Staff Writer
Learn About Bryant Apply to Bryant

Each year, Bryant’s Day of Understanding provides an important opportunity for the entire university community to learn from one another, continue important conversations, and focus on building stronger connections. The third annual Day of Understanding, held November 1, offered more than 60 workshops, presentations, panel discussions, exhibitions, and performances that united Bryant in its shared mission to ensure the campus is a welcoming place where everyone is supported and belongs.

“I hope the Day of Understanding inspires each member of our community to think more deeply about how we engage with one another,” says Kevin Martins, Ed.D., Assistant Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “Being a member of a community means recognizing the impact we have on one another and the responsibility of care we have for each other.”

United in purpose to support one another
A signature Bryant event, the Day of Understanding brings together support from across the community. More than 2,000 people registered for the day’s sessions and more than 10 different student organizations, more than 10 campus offices, departments and programs, and volunteers from every corner of the University all assisted the DEI office in shaping the Day's programming. Day classes were cancelled for all students so that they could attend Day of Understanding events.

Bryant is dedicated to inclusion in all aspects of teaching, learning, and living harmoniously in a shared scholarly environment, noted University President Ross Gittell, Ph.D., during the Day’s opening session. “I am glad to see so many members of the Bryant community participating in this important day dedicated to listening and learning,” he told the audience. “It is the strong commitment from faculty, staff, and student organizations that helps make this day of learning so powerful.” 

"There are many ways to build community, but passively is not one of them—you have to be actively engaged in the process."

“The theme for this year’s Day of Understanding is Building Community—which we all play a role in establishing here at Bryant. From programming across campus, to the curriculum in the classroom, to the retention of our students and staff—it is everyone’s responsibility to do their part in creating a community of belonging,” said Alicia Mackenzie, Director of Bryant’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and a member of the Day of Understanding planning committee

Martins encouraged the community to make the most of the myriad opportunities open to them through the Day's programming. "There are a million opportunities today not just to listen and learn but to share your voice,” he said. “There are many ways to build community, but passively is not one of them—you have to be actively engaged in the process."

“Nothing has to be the way it is.”
Throughout the day, more than 35 guests and keynote speakers representing a variety of fields, endeavors, heritages, and walks of life helped Bryant faculty, staff, and students understand how to make a difference in their own way and be a better ally and community member. 

Michael Murphy, the Day’s first keynote speaker and founding principal of the award-winning international architectural firm MASS Design Group, spoke about the critical role architecture can play in supporting communities, shaping new narratives, and furthering public health. He also reminded the community that, no matter their vocation, they can always choose to work toward the betterment of others.

Architect Michael Murphy
 “Notice the space around you, noticing, naming, announcing—and start by asking, ‘why..” 
Michael Murphy, founding principal of the award-winning international architectural firm MASS Design
Group, advised students. 

"I'm hoping today we can talk about the very specific and practical decisions we can make in our world. But I'm really hoping we can talk about agency and the decisions you can make every day in your communities to affect change, to fight for justice, and also to instill beauty in our everyday lives," Murphy told the crowd. 

In his keynote conversation with Martins, Kofi Thomas, director of The People's Garden, founder and director of The Good Life Garden, and chairman of the Neighborhood Advisory Board for Bushwick, told the inspiring story of how a group of volunteers transformed an abandoned lot in Brooklyn into a 13,00-square foot public garden that serves as a hub for arts, culture, and educational programming.  He also praised the power of collective action. “One of the things that has always really moved me is the question: What happens when we decide to work together?” Thomas mused. When individuals unite behind a common cause, he suggested, it can lead to real results. “Nothing has to be the way it is. Big things can happen when you get together with other people,” he told the students, faculty, and staff attending his talk. 

Learning how to make a positive impact
The speakers also offered tools and advice the community could use to make an impact. Idrees “Lanre” Ajakaiye, President and CEO of the 25 Bough Street community development project, took his audience behind the scenes of a few of the successful social entrepreneurship projects he has worked on, providing a lesson in how businesses and communities can work together. "The key thing I want you to focus on is problem identification and putting a solution around that problem," he advised. “You go to Bryant, a great school for learning about innovation and independent thinking. Being able to correctly identify the problem means that there are so many solutions that you can develop.”

Kim Anderson works with Bryant students
Plant City CEO and Bryant Trustee Kim Anderson offered to help Bryant's student entrepreneurs
chart their paths to success, and they quickly took her up on her offer. 

Plant City CEO and Bryant Trustee Kim Anderson discussed her efforts to build a community of sustainability-minded organizations as well as her work founding Plant City, an all-plant-based food hall and marketplace. She also shared her passion for socially responsible business and helping others succeed—and how embracing that focus would be even more important for the next generation. “You want to work with and for companies that are doing things right and sustainably and compassionately for the planet, because the time for not doing that has run out,” she said. At the conclusion of her talk, Anderson offered to help Bryant's student entrepreneurs find their own paths to success, and many were quick to take her up on the offer. 

A common theme of the day involved encouraging the community to find ways to create the world they wanted to see around them. Hilina D. Ajakaiye, Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Vice President and President and Founder of the R.I.S.E. Women's Leadership Conference, shared with her audience how she found her calling empowering other people and discovered the confidence to speak out on behalf of herself and others. “If you’re thinking about making changes in your community, don’t wait. You’re ready now,” she said. 

Hilina D. Ajakaiye
Hilina D. Ajakaiye, Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Vice President and
President and Founder of the R.I.S.E. Women's Leadership Conference, encouraged her
audience to find ways to make a difference.

Speaker, consultant, and thought leader Dr. Derek Greenfield affirmed this idea in his “Better Together: Finding Community” workshops, attended by Bryant’s entire first year class. Greenfield led the students through exercises that aided them in opening their world up to others and asked them to continue that process—and to continue having important connections—beyond the day’s sessions. “It’s always been the college speakers who are the movers and shakers,” he noted.

Understanding through sharing perspectives
The Bryant community also used the Day as forum for important discussions with one another on a wide range of issues, from exploring the experiences of women-identifying members of the community to examining the intersections of Bryant’s faith community with the University’s chaplains to innovating and employing inclusive new ways of teaching. More than 50 Bryant community members volunteered to present, share, or moderate during the Day of Understanding. 

“By providing so many different speakers and sessions, the Day of Understanding allows the members of our community to create their own path throughout the day and participate in the programs and topics that intrigue them most,” states Bryant’s Vice President of Student Government Catherine Harris ’24, who helped to organize several of the day’s sessions. “It is really valuable that so much of the community is involved because their involvement incorporates so many different perspectives into the day.”

Through panels like the University’s annual “I Am An Immigrant” session—during which students, faculty, and staff who identify as immigrants shared their stories, perspectives, and advice—Bryant’s constituents strove to better understand one another and create a stronger, more global community. "It's incredibly important to have conversations like the ones we're having today, to embrace our differences and celebrate the diversity we have on this campus," noted the panel’s moderator, Alejandro Vaquerano ’23.

Alumni Changemaker panel
Bryant Alumni (from left) Kayla Batalha ’22, Aliana Soto ’04, and Quinton Law ’19 returned
to campus for a Changemakers panel.

There were also opportunities for open and honest discussion about how far Bryant has come and how it could continue to make the University a more inclusive place. Alumni Quinton Law ’19, Kayla Batalha ’22, and Aliana Soto ’04 took part in a Changemakers panel. They talked about their efforts to further equality and belonging on campus, the challenges they faced during their time as Bryant students, and where they found support within the Bryant community. “One of the biggest lessons I've learned is not to let your inability to do everything stop you from doing something," Law reflected.

“Sometimes you’re just planting seeds,” Soto noted. “Sometimes the change you want to see will be for the people who come after you.”

Coming together through artistic expression
The Day of Understanding offered several other venues for the members of the campus community to express themselves through concerts, exhibitions, and other showcases. Poster presentations highlighting student research on areas relating to social responsibility inspired discussion and exchanges of ideas. Celebrations of student and faculty artwork and a performance by the Bryant University Jazz Band provided a spotlight for campus creativity. 

Visiting performers such as the Eastern Medicine Singers and steel drum musician Becky Bass, artists like master printer Jacques Bidon, and storytellers including poet Ryan Parker and the Rhode Island Black Storytellers group all helped the community understand how artistic endeavors can play a vital role in bringing people together, honoring traditions, and helping individuals understand one another. 

Eastern Mountain Singers
The Eastern Medicine Singers performed as part of a formal Bryant University Land

"The Day of Understanding is thoughtfully designed to provide an opportunity for members of the Bryant community to hear many voices, learn about and share experiences that are not often highlighted on campus, celebrate diverse arts traditions, engage in difficult conversations, examine our own biases, challenge the status quo, and cultivate action,” says Lecturer of English and Cultural Studies Joan Zaretti, Ph.D., who moderated a panel on creating community through art. “The day is packed with amazing speakers, performers, and workshops, and my hope would be that each participant implements the ideas and thoughtful design into their life in a way that every day becomes a day of understanding."

Novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Jennine Capó Crucet, award-winning author of “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” worked with the University’s first year students on finding their own voice through their writing and spoke about how telling stories can be a powerful and uplifting tool. “I wanted to write a book that would have helped me,” she noted.  "I wanted to write a book that brought comfort and honesty to the students I was working with."

“Being able to understand people and welcome them is the strongest skill anyone can have. It’s a skill that can change the world.”

Working toward a better tomorrow
The Day of Understanding provided a moment for all of Bryant to reflect on how the community has grown, build mutual understanding, and recommit to the work they will continue to do together. For Danielle Latty ’24, president of Bryant’s Black Women’s Blueprint student organization and an organizer for two of the day’s sessions, it was an opportunity for Bryant to go even further in its commitment to inclusion. “I think that the key message for the Day of Understanding is that we can always learn and do more,” she explains. “The Day of Understanding is a spark—it sparks the idea of building community and making Bryant even better— but it is our job to turn that spark into a flame and to make sure that we continually work to be better.”

“Being able to understand people and welcome them is the strongest skill anyone can have,” Latty reflects. “It’s a skill that can change the world.”

Read More

Related Stories