by Holly Fetter, ’13
One of the most distinctive factors that sets Stanford apart from other universities is its diversity — diversity of perspectives, experiences, identities, origins, beliefs. It’s a word that’s used so often that it almost lacks meaning, like “multicultural” or “entrepreneurial.” Even the Dictionary.com definition is wack — “Diversity: the state of being diverse.” Roughly half of Stanford students self-identify as people of color. Unlike certain East Coast institutions of higher learning, this campus has been open to all genders since its founding. 15% of Stanford students are the first in their families to attend college, and 75% students receive some form of financial aid. Yes, our student population represents a variety of different identities. We coexist in residence halls, student groups, frat parties. We’re a very “multicultural” mix.
But are we really equipped to handle our differences? What do we do when it gets messy? How do we deal when we’re not sure if our words are accidentally transphobic, or that our actions make students from different class backgrounds feel uncomfortable? It’s super important that we each go beyond being best friends or “colorblind” classmates, and make the effort to educate ourselves on how to be active allies in the face of prejudices, both subtle and overt. An “ally” is someone who supports members of community/ies to which they do not personally belong, through interrupting injustice at a personal and/or institutional level. Learning how to be an ally can help us through those awkward encounters with -isms and -phobias that might otherwise leave us feeling powerless and uncomfortable. Being an ally allows us to align our values (i.e. respect for people of other races) with our actions (i.e. calling someone out for their racist Facebook post, instead of just letting it go). If we are allies and friends, we can deepen and strengthen our interpersonal relationships and support networks.
Being an ally is a process, not an identity, and its one that you can begin on Thursday evening at 7 PM. The ASSU Community Action Board, a group of 25 students from across Stanford’s various communities, has developed a student-initiated course called CSRE 26SI: “Active Allies: Building Empathetic and Actionable Leadership at Stanford.” Sponsored by the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity program, this 1-2 unit course will explore 21st-century tools for understanding the role of difference and diversity in contemporary social settings. This class has been carefully created by students, for students. It’ll be taught by your peers — members of the ASSU CAB who approach this work from a variety of perspectives, and who are incredibly excited to teach and learn with you. None of us are experts — we’re each taking this class because we want to understand how to be better friends and allies, too.
Over 10 weeks, we’ll gain practical skills for living in our diverse and vibrant world. We’ll do activities like the “Power Shuffle” to visualize our different privileges and understand how we can turn our shame into productive allyship. We’ll hear from a group of Stanford social psychologists about the subtle ways in which seemingly old school prejudices manifest themselves. We’ll participate in and observe fishbowl discussions among students of different identities. We’ll hear from renowned artists and poets about the use of creative work to resist oppression. We’ll explore the history of diversity and relevant activism on campus. We’ll invite a panel of Stanford professors and staff to talk about their experiences as allies, and participate in a workshop to increase our abilities to be effective allies. We’ll engage in a behavior design workshop with the goal of creating a project that we can bring back to our communities as an “actionable ally intervention.” And throughout the entire course, we’ll have rich and honest discussions about our own experiences and fears of dealing with diversity.
Through the processes of developing and taking this class, we hope to empower folks to actively seek out educational experiences that are valuable to our individual contexts. For those of us on the Community Action Board, this meant creating an opportunity to engage with the topic of “allyship” in an academic setting. As our campus communities become more diverse, and as our educational system evolves to reflect the need to give students the “capacity for thinking critically and reflectively about human difference,” it’s imperative that we envision new ways to understand “leadership” and “diversity.” What do these tired terms mean today? As is illustrated in the SUES Report, it is time for students to “own our knowledge.” Beyond having authority over how we pursue our breadth requirements, as it is presented in the report, I believe this idea extends to our ability to create the curricula with which we most want to engage. With our student-initiated course, we are modeling the potential for each of us to become active agents in our own educations — both inside and outside the classroom.
Bottom line: take the class. It’s only 1 or 2 units, and committed auditors are absolutely welcome. It’ll be a unique and fun experience, and we guarantee that each of us will leave feeling better prepared to confront the challenges of an increasingly diverse and complicated world. So join us from 7 to 9 PM on Thursday evenings!
Holly is a Senior on the ASSU Community Action Board.