This weekend I avoided homework, frat parties, and sporting events, and participated in a revelatory experience: the Intergroup Community Building Initiative (ICBI), hosted by Barnard Student Life and Columbia University Office of Multicultural Affairs.
The goal of the conference was to “build real connections across different identity communities, make new friendships, and become engaged in a community that values diversity in all of its forms,” and it went above and beyond. Administrators from different areas of campus led the conference, bringing their insight from, to name a few groups: Hillel, the Intercultural Resource Office (IRC), and Greek life.
For the three dozen or so student attendees, the conference required an application including questions like, “Which social identities do you feel are integral to who you are?” and “Have you reached out to communities outside of your own since arriving to Barnard/Columbia? If so, what were the challenges and opportunities that were presented from this relationship? If not, what barriers have existed to you reaching out?” Students brought experiences and stories from their own varied backgrounds—breaking boundaries across race, religion, class, sexuality, gender, and ability.
From 9 to 5 on Saturday and Sunday, fueled by coffee, Nussbaum bagels and pad thai, we addressed how our differences manifest themselves in the Columbia community, and how we can work to be more inclusive. One of our key phrases was “get raggedy”—(think of a raggedy ann doll)—i.e., our thoughts needn’t be perfectly coherent and eloquently articulated for us to get them off our chests. We created a comfortable, safe space of dialogue and discussion, and I came away more insightful about myself and the community around me.
I learned that last year’s Black Lives Matter movement was a polarizing issue on campus between black and white students. I learned that socioeconomic diversity here encompasses a much wider scope than I had previously thought, and that many students are wary to broach the topic of money. I learned that, though we all LOVE to complain about how stressed we are or how depressed Columbia makes us, many of us are sometimes less eager to divulge our deeper mental health struggles.
The conference focused on issues that need to change, and our plans for the future are less concrete—but one thing is clear: the kind of dialogue we had needs to happen more. If a plethora of white students dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement as irrelevant, we have a problem. If students hold stereotypes about those on financial aid, we have a problem. If we can’t openly discuss differences, even when they make us uncomfortable, tense, or inarticulate, we have a problem.
What saddens me is how unwilling many of us are to consider cross-cultural dialogue. Students at Columbia self-segregate like the different cliques in the cafeteria in High School Musical. It is hard to find groups of friends that come from very varied and diverse backgrounds. Finding a community of people like you is important: safe spaces are key to surviving/thriving in college. But so is dialogue about difference—understanding difference, challenging it, celebrating it, accepting it. If we can’t have these kinds of conversations—particularly about class and race—we are doing each other an injustice, and missing what I think is a key component of college: befriending people who are different from you.
Many students hold pessimistic attitudes about open dialogue like this, based on past experience: that it is unnecessary, or trite, or impossible. ICBI shows that exchange and understanding is possible.
I fit a common mold of privilege on campus (white New England prep school grad with some Jewish heritage), and I realize I’m in a privileged place to make change. I am so glad I got to partake in this opportunity, and excited for what comes next. What I loved most about the conference was how none of us fit a stereotype. We were commuters, international students, upper and lower-classmen, white students, students of color, high and low income, gay and straight, athletes, artists, and activists–and we all managed to bond. I look forward to sharing a colorful dinner together one of these days at John Jay.