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Faculty, Staff Mentors Sought for Cultural Conversations

Howard Thurman Center sponsors diversity discussions

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Katherine Kennedy, director of the Howard Thurman Center. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Born in New York’s Spanish Harlem and raised in the South Bronx, Raul Fernandez grew up proud of his Puerto Rican ancestry. But as an undergraduate at Boston University, he often felt isolated from the larger student population. “I never once considered going to the Back Bay Ball or the Senior Ball,” he says, “largely because I didn’t feel like they were meant for someone like me.”

Despite having friends among BU’s Latino community, Fernandez (COM’00) felt there was a lack of role models and mentors for Latino students, particularly among the University’s faculty and staff. When he became assistant director of the Howard Thurman Center, BU’s multicultural center offering a range of community-building and multicultural programs, activities, services, and resources, in 2006, one of his priorities was launching a series of faculty and staff conversations on campus diversity.

“The goal is to ultimately put faculty and staff in a place where they can better serve underrepresented students,” he says, “because if we want to make a difference in their lives, it’s critical that we understand their communities.”

Similar to the center’s weekly Coffee and Conversation, facilitated by Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore, the sessions seek to provide information and foster discussion related to groups that have been historically underrepresented and marginalized, both at BU and by society at large.

“These conversations are especially important because the topics we discuss tend to be about subjects that make people fear,” says Katherine Kennedy, director of the Howard Thurman Center. “We want to provide a learning opportunity and a platform for people to ask awkward and difficult questions without feeling self-conscious.”

Led by Elmore and Charles Glenn, dean ad interim of the School of Education, the first two sessions were held in February and focused on issues of race. “Attendance was relatively low,” Fernandez says, “but there was a good mix of ethnicities — black, white, Latino, and Asian — and I think that’s really positive.”

Future discussions, to be held later this spring, will concentrate on issues pertaining to gender, people with disabilities, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. The topics are intentionally broad, Fernandez says, and they will likely narrow as the series progresses. Eventually, he’d like the discussions to focus on very specific topics, such as transgender issues or mental health.

“As members of this University, our goal is to live up to BU’s charter and its pronouncement that it is welcoming to people of all backgrounds, genders, and ethnicities,” Kennedy says. “It’s crucially important that faculty and staff be aware of these differences and be able to address them in the classroom.”

Fernandez hopes that the conversations will help him identify future mentors for underrepresented students. “As a society, we’re very reluctant to talk about the things that really matter,” he says. “We don’t want to discuss differences in race or politics or religion because we’re so worried about offending each other. Now we’re stuck in a rut, and we’ll remain there unless we move the conversation forward.”

“We understand that change isn’t going to happen overnight,” Kennedy adds, “but we’re patient. The more we reach out, the more change will occur.”

For a schedule of upcoming conversations, click here or contact the Howard Thurman Center at 617-353-4745.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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