Fifth in a series of stories from the latest edition of Inclusion magazine, a Courier publication devoted to the diversity of our community.
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Educators at the University of Northern Iowa know preparing students for living and working in today's environment is about more than reading books, writing papers and giving speeches.
It's also about functioning in an increasingly shrinking world of multifaceted backgrounds.
One goal is to "create and maintain an inclusive educational environment that prepares students to thrive in a diverse global environment."
"Diversity, in every form, benefits all members of the UNI community, especially students," said Ben Allen, retiring University of Northern Iowa president. "Diversity in and out of the classroom allows for an enhanced educational experience. Additionally, a diverse network of peers prepares students for the real world, which happens to be far more diverse than the state of Iowa."
To help realize its goals, UNI has embraced the National Coalition Building Institute, a nonprofit leadership training organization based in Washington, D.C. Its mission is to "help eliminate prejudice and intergroup conflict in communities throughout the world."
Provost Gloria Gibson introduced NCBI to UNI nearly four years ago and asked for volunteers to become involved. The UNI initiative is called the Campus Coalition Builders, or CCB. Victoria DeFrancisco, professor of communications studies, is the coordinator.
"I've been here 22 years, and I have been on many diversity initiatives on campus," DeFrancisco said. "For some reason they haven't lasted. The people who run the (NCBI) workshops are all volunteers. I get release time because I do administrative work, but the people who go through the training --- a minimum of 30 hours of training to do a workshop --- that's a lot of investment. The goal is to make it more a part of the institution, to make it a part of campus life."
NCBI's motto is "Every issue counts." Its workshop model focuses on sharing personal stories of discrimination and mistreatment without shame or blame, and on building allies in other groups so those oppressed do not feel isolated.
"This is a program that's all about the 'isms'," DeFrancisco said --- racism, classism, sexism, for example, and none takes priority over another. "We try to talk about and value our differences around physical disability, social class, sexual orientation, gender and educational background. I think the unique thing about NCBI is it doesn't concentrate on just one issue, it's very inclusive.
"The other is its very welcoming approach. (The workshops) create an atmosphere where it's OK to talk about your own baggage and how you got it and how you can bring about change. It's done in a very loving, supporting way."
NCBI has about 50 city-based leadership teams, 30 organization-based leadership teams and more than 60 college/university-based teams, known as campus affiliates. UNI became the first campus affiliate in the state and has been followed by the University of Iowa and Upper Iowa University.
UNI's CCB team meets on a monthly basis to "practice our skills and hone the workshops," DeFrancisco said. "The goal, ultimately, is more than workshops. You learn how to run meetings, how you run your classrooms. It's how you greet a customer or a client in the library. It's about being aware, trying to create a place where the customer feels welcome.
"It's affected the way I teach and the way I try to be a social justice advocate."
The initiative began as a pilot program in office of Academic Affairs, with the faculty, and Student Affairs. Last January President Allen announced it was going campus-wide. A recent workshop was attended by representatives from catering, residence life, along with students and faculty.
"The RAs in the dorms all went through six hours of training in August," DeFrancisco said. "That was fabulous to have people who are touching students' lives on a day-to-day basis to participate. In May we do the same thing with the summer orientation staff. We have a new Cornerstone course for first-year students. Some of our members teach that course and would like to find a way to connect more with that. Student Government has been really good about getting their administrative staff in the workshop."
Public relations major Katie Grassi recently attended a workshop.
"I wanted to get involved with CCB because I really enjoy diversity work and being involved in training with that topic," she explained. "I also plan to become a public speaker, focusing on diversity and acceptance. I saw it as a great opportunity to build my own ideas and exercises to use in the future as I also plan to facilitate workshops for middle school, high school and college-age individuals."
Economics major Walter Abrego said, "Being part of a minority (Hispanic/Latino), diversity on campus is really important for me. All the things I learned during the training are skills that I can apply during my everyday interaction with others. Also, since I am a leader in my community, I wanted to learn how to deal with issues that can affect other people in my community.
"The training taught me to appreciate people's individuality and to get rid of stereotypes in order to be a better person. The next step I am planning on taking with NCBI is becoming a trainer."
DeFrancisco said CCB has about 15 active members at the present time. Nearly 30 people are waiting to be trained.
"I think of it as growing the choir," she said. "You don't want to force people to come. That's the worst kind of situation to make people open to learning. Instead, you invite people who want to learn more about it and who want to become a part of the solution. "
The Coalition is expanding its initiative in other ways. Jim Loewen, a published author and academic in diversity, will speak March 4 at 7 p.m. in Lang Auditorium. The presentation is open to the public. He also will lead a workshop with faculty. In addition, a group of students attended a national White Privilege Conference in Minneapolis.
"Qualifying the success of such a program can be difficult," President Allen said. "However, what is asked of each participant upon completion of the workshop is to reenter the UNI community being able to recognize the multiple aspects of diversity and more specifically, their attitudes and actions about themselves and others different from them.
"Hopefully, their experiences in CCB will give rise to engaging, proactive conversations with their peers regarding diversity on campus."