A workshop for incoming first-year students intended to raise awareness about issues like racism and sexism left some students feeling uncomfortable and unheard.
Jennifer Harvey, Drake University’s associate provost for campus equity and inclusion, addressed concerns about the “You. Me. We.” workshop in an email to the student body Aug. 26.
The goal of the workshop was to show students that “building the relationships of belonging we all need and deserve in order to thrive will require us all to recognize and unlearn various stereotypes and -isms—including racism—we all bring to this space in different ways,” according to Harvey’s email.
“What we are hearing very clearly is that rather than being a constructive move towards such dialogue, the experience had the opposite effect,” Harvey said in the email. “A sense of belonging for students of color—whose well-being matters deeply to me and other members of the team who planned Welcome Week—was instead thrown into jeopardy.”
According to Harvey, the decision to bring in the outside group High Impact Training to conduct the “You. Me. We.” workshop was in part because prior years’ diversity, equity and inclusion workshops fell short of students’ expectations. The hope was that a workshop format with skits would be more engaging and informative for students, and Harvey said the group was thoroughly vetted before they were hired to conduct the workshops at Drake.
“We thought we were bringing in experts who had a whole design that would never have left it in the kind of chaos and trauma and pain that they did,” Harvey said. “Those are the kinds of things that I’ve heard from students over the last five days – that they were traumatized, that the interactive nature of it was aggressive and that the open mic was a huge problem.”
First-year Livy Deppe, who attended the second out of two sessions offered, said some of the conflict arose from the actors staying “in character” during the entire workshop.
The actors told the students at the beginning that they would be “in character” for the skits demonstrating examples of discriminatory or negative comments and behavior, and would be staying in character through the Q&A at the end, according to Harvey.
However, it was not clear to all students that the actors were still in character during the Q&A, according to Deppe, causing some to feel uncomfortable and upset at the comments being made by the actors.
“So the whole thing was that the actors would stay on stage in character and we would get to ask them questions or voice an opinion,” Deppe said. “And I do understand that they were in character, but the way that they went about answering some of these questions was kind of just blatantly rude.”
When the actors brought out a second microphone to allow students to engage in the Q&A, some students’ comments caused disagreements among the crowd, and many began to shout over each other, according to Deppe.
“At one point, I had the second mic and I’m pretty sure that I was holding the mic for about 10 minutes trying to say what I wanted to say,” Deppe said. “And I do believe that it was very much talking over each other.”
First-year Ryan Sherman, who also attended the second workshop session, said he “understood what they were attempting to do, but it was offensive to me.”
“As far as I could tell, it was offensive to the vast majority of people present in the room,” Sherman said. “There weren’t slurs used, there wasn’t blatant racism, it was more cultural insensitivity. It was poorly worded phrases and just a poor choice of action. For the circumstances, I think staying in character was a bad idea.”
Sherman said many first-year students were already uncomfortable and on edge after the skits, and those feelings only increased during the Q&A portion of the event.
“Giving a microphone to the students didn’t really do anything. Because everybody was so riled up, it quickly became a shouting match from across the auditorium between a lot of different people at once,” Sherman said. “That room quickly became filled with hate and division, much quicker than I’ve ever seen a room filled before.”
In response to students’ feedback, Harvey held a listening session with first-years on Saturday to talk about the workshop sessions and the harm that was caused.
“It would be impossible for me to sort of overstate how much grief I have about that, because I know the harm is real,” Harvey said. “And I also know it sets back many things we have done to really grow meaningful DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] work on this campus.”
Harvey said a phone call was scheduled Monday with the High Impact Training group to discuss the harm caused by the workshop sessions, and she said the group will not be returning to campus for any future workshops.
“It was a well-vetted decision that was a disaster,” Harvey said. “And if someone had said, ‘This is how it’s going to go,’ of course we would have never hired a group like that.”
Harvey encourages students to keep an eye out for university communications in the coming weeks as further support and dialogue sessions are announced. Students impacted by the experience can also seek services at the Drake counseling center.
“We are just as responsible for the harm that was caused and we intend to continue to be accountable for that. And we understand that intent and impact are not the same thing, that impact is what matters in this case,” Harvey said. “On behalf of my office, I’m sorry, because my office was a co-sponsor. From my role as associate provost, I’m sorry. Even just as a person for whom student wellbeing is at the heart of my work for 15 years, I am sorry.”
The workshop came on the heels of another racial incident at Drake before most students arrived on campus. While Crew scholars were visiting the Sprout Community Garden during Crew Days, the “n-word” was discovered on a white board in the garden, according to Harvey’s Aug. 26 email.
The timing and other evidence indicates that it was not a member of the Drake community who vandalized the white board, according to Harvey’s email.