What does it mean to be an ally? How does restorative justice work? Can the fight for equity and inclusion be joyful, too?
Students, staff, faculty, and university leaders discovered answers to these questions and more at the fourth Day of Understanding on Thursday, a campus-wide event centering diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. With academic calendars cleared, the Bryant community participated in lectures, panel discussions, and artistic performances, with international cuisine from local vendors fueling the momentum of the day.
At 9 a.m., a large audience gathered in the MAC auditorium for opening remarks and a compelling keynote address.
“I hope today challenges you all to go beyond understanding,” said Bryant’s Assistant Director of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Rinne-Julie Fruster, who organized the 2023 Day of Understanding alongside Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students, and Chief Diversity Officer Inge-Lise Ameer, Ed.D., and Associate Vice President of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Mailee Kue, Ph.D.
Following Fruster’s remarks, President Ross Gittell, Ph.D., thanked the audience for their dedication to an important day at Bryant.
“It is my hope that we leave today, not just with a heightened awareness, but with determination to implement what we learn,” he said.
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Veronica McComb, Ph.D., then took to the podium to introduce keynote speaker and bestselling author Ijeoma Oluo, whose 2018 book, So You Want to Talk About Race, was this year’s common read for first-year students. Oluo’s lecture — a raw portrait of college life for students from diverse backgrounds learning and living on predominantly white campuses, which was based on her own experiences and those of her readers — gripped students, faculty, and staff alike.
“Everything we have, and the way in which we move through the world, was created by people. People no better and no brighter than all of you,” she told the audience. “I believe that you, in this space, and at this time, are poised to do better.”
Belonging at Bryant
Most of the day’s discussions centered on how students, faculty, and staff can build a more inclusive campus for all. Megan Polun ’23 led an engaging talk on the sociopolitical importance of identity labels from her perspective as a queer Jewish woman, while the Pride Center’s Meg Kenneally guided a broader group discussion on allyship at Bryant.
“A key part of allyship is a willingness to put yourself out there and speak up” on behalf of peers being targeted, Kenneally said, because the discrimination we see today “is built on generations of people who haven’t been interrupted.”
The importance of inclusion for Bryant’s international students was addressed in “The International Bulldog Experience,” a thoughtful panel that included alumni from Ecuador, India, and Senegal.
“I came to Bryant very nervous because I left everything I was familiar with back home for a place I had never seen before,” reflected Vaishnavi Velagapudi ’23 ’24MBA, a former president of Bryant’s Multicultural Student Union. She credits the Center for Diversity and Inclusion as a place where she always felt welcome and the university’s 4MILE orientation program with introducing her to Bryant’s vibrant community.
It was that community, the panel agreed, that helped make their new school a new home. “Through this new situation, I’ve gained so many new friends. I’ve enjoyed exploring our differences, and that’s helped me learn more about myself and shaped my worldview,” noted Julian Serrano Comacho ’23, who is now working with current students to grow Bryant’s chapter of the Association of Latino Professionals for America.
Addressing inequity in prisons, pocketbooks, the planet
In Bello Grand Hall, Harvesting Chaos’s Kristianna Smith led interactive discussions on generative conflict, accountability, and transformative justice – a political framework based on the idea that crimes, such as abuse and assault, are rooted in oppression.
“If we were actually solving the root causes of conflict in our society, if we were actually taking care of people in the first place, we would have an abundance of resources to help people,” Smith said, from victims of crimes to perpetrators in need of rehabilitation.
Marcy Reyes — CEO and founder of FLY Initiative, a nonprofit that provides students with financial literacy resources — looked at the psychology of wealth and prompted Bulldogs to reflect on their relationship with money. She noted that family, religion, personality, experiences, media, society, community, and culture can influence a person’s response to money.
A climate crisis and equity justice panel discussed the ongoing impacts of climate change, such as infrastructure vulnerability, rising sea levels, and increases in energy usage. Biological and Biomedical Sciences professors Hong Yang, Ph.D., and Qin Leng, Ph.D., along with Research Associate Josh Turner '23, stressed the importance of environmental education as the world works toward a sustainable future for all – particularly those most impacted by climate change.
“If all the terrestrial glaciers melted, then our campus would be the coastal area; that’s very scary to think about when you look at how far we are from the sea,” said Leng.
Celebrating authenticity, allyship
In the day’s closing panel, “Still Here and Still Very Much Queer: Liberation, Community Care and Safety in the LGBTQIA2S+ Community,” Fruster led a powerful, often emotional, discussion with drag artist and organizer Ladda Nurv; Patty Bourrée, director of the Boston Chapter of Drag Story Hour; and Matt Garza, artistic director of Haus of Glitter. Together, they explored the importance of chosen family, discovering the courage to authentically be oneself, and their personal definitions of “queerness.”
“There’s something beautiful about how fire is not a limited resource; we can share it without losing what we have."
“When I think of 'queer,' I think of walking outside and smiling,” suggested Nurv. “I think of walking past a mirror and loving who that person is. I think of community, empowerment, and a safe space for all.”
Solidarity is a source of strength, the panel argued. “There’s something beautiful about how fire is not a limited resource; we can share it without losing what we have,” reflected Garza. “I can light your candle with my candle, and we will both have our flame.”
It was fitting, then, that the day ended with joyous drag performances from Nurv and Bourrée as the audience of students, faculty, staff, and university leaders cheered and snapped their fingers in allyship and celebration of authentic expression.