Bryant University’s second annual Day of Understanding offered an important opportunity for the entire university to learn from one another, continue important conversations and focus on building a stronger world. This year's event invited students, faculty, staff and alumni to reflect on different forms of justice through more than 50 panels, workshops, seminars and discussion groups led by Bryant peers and colleagues, as well as invited experts.
“The Day of Understanding is a day to reaffirm our strong commitment to a campus community that learns from each other’s experiences and perspectives and that collectively builds diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” says Bryant President Ross Gittell, Ph.D. “Our theme for this year, ‘Justice begins with us,’” is a reminder of the important role every individual has in contributing to a learning environment where all individuals feel valued and safe–regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or class.”
Experiencing others’ stories
Organized by Bryant’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with partners across campus, the day’s topics, ranged from challenging the societal labels that define our identity to exploring matters of disability justice to learning what people can do–both collectively and as individuals–to help others. The insights gained led to enriching discussions in both the classrooms and residence halls.
Events such as the Day of Understanding serve an important complement to Bryant students’ classroom studies, notes Kevin K. Martins, Ed.D., Bryant’s Assistant Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. "Everything that we do leads back to our university mission to create leaders with character around the world. You can't be a leader with character if you don't understand the problems in society and don't develop the skill sets to have hard conversations about those problems, think critically about them and propose innovative solutions."
“Today is about learning how to have conversations–sometimes difficult conversations–with one another and it's important that we start now as college students so we can bring those experiences with us into the world, wherever we go.”
Madison Perez ’22, Executive Vice President of Bryant’s Student Government, helped to organize two of the day’s sessions–a keynote sharing the stories of exonerated death row inmates and the Vibes Café, where spoken word artists and musicians performed original pieces intended to inspire deep thought and reflection. "This was a day about justice in all of its forms: medical justice, criminal justice, environmental justice, disability justice, even artistic justice," she points out.
The day’s keynotes included:
- Intertwined Struggles: No Justice Without Disability Justice: Abolitionist community lawyer, educator and organizer Talila "TL" Lewis, J.D., shared how disability is a natural part of the human experience and how often unexamined histories of ableism shape how disability lives in the present. Expanding understandings of disability and ableism, she noted, increases ways to implement practices of Disability Justice as well as increase solidarity between people and movements.
- What the Eyes Don’t See: Stories from the Frontlines of the Flint Water Crisis: Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, FAAP, founder and director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, engaged in a student-led conversation moderated by Logan O’Donnell ‘22 and Emma McGovern ’23 that delved into Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s research and activism to expose and mitigate the effects of the Flint water crisis.
- Death Row Exonerees: World renowned photographer Martin Schoeller and three death row exonerees–Kwame Ajamu, Ray Krone, and Derrick Jamison–shared their experiences with the criminal justice system. An accompanying exhibit by Scholeller, in collaboration with the nonprofit organization Witness to Innocence, used portraits to detail the stories of formerly incarcerated people on death row.
- Red, White, Black & Blue: A Cartoonist Addresses America’s Racial Illiteracy: Rapper, social activist, educator and creator of the popular comic strips “The Knight Life,” “(Th)ink,” and “The K Chronicles,” Keith Knight discussed one of America’s biggest problems; its inability to have an honest discussion about race.
The discussions the day sparked, Perez says, were all about seeing each other a little better as members of a diverse community where all should be treated as equals. "We all come from vastly different experiences and communities around the world,” she says. “Today is about learning how to have conversations–sometimes difficult conversations–with one another. It's important that we start now as college students so we can bring those experiences with us into the world, wherever we go.”
“It’s about being introduced to new things and thinking about 'What are my actionables? What should I do with what I learned. The discussions we started today can't stop."
Seeing ourselves and planning the future
A broad, inter-departmental planning committee led by Melanie Cluley, Bryant’s Assistant Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, brought together people and organizations from all across campus for the Day of Understanding. More than 30 faculty, 23 staff members, 18 students and nine student organizations presented, 24 guest speakers shared their insights and 15 nonprofit organizations dedicated to social justice were represented.
"We wanted to make sure the community sees themselves reflected in this event,” states Martins. “It's always more enriching when everyone has the opportunity to shape the day, shape the conversations and engage in a way that is best for them. This day is for all of us, we can all learn from one another."
By working together, Perez states, we can resolve to make lasting change–as long as we all make the effort. “It’s about being introduced to new things and thinking about 'What are my actionables? What should I do with what I learned?’” she says. “The discussions we started today can't stop."