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Celebrating the TC Ecosystem

An Office that enhances community, diversity and organizational change

An Office that enhances community, diversity and organizational change

By Suzanne Guillette

“Thank you for moving so quickly to create the space, time, and ‘sanction’…for the community to come together, and just be together.”

Those words were written in an email from Lynda Hallmark, Manager in TC’s Social Organizational Psychology Program, to the Vice President’s Office for Diversity and Community Affairs, when the Office acted swiftly after the sudden losses of Emily Fortis and Dominick Gennaro, two longtime TC employees who had passed away within days of one another over this past summer.

In response to the unexpected deaths, the Office had set up a two-hour support gathering on the fourth floor of Thompson for community members who wished to “remember, reflect and celebrate” the lives of Fortis and Gennaro. As Hallmark noted, the gathering was a fitting “opportunity to honor Dominick and Emily’s spirits by getting to know and to talk to new people today.”

The event was just one example of how the Office, headed by Janice Robinson, TC’s Vice President for Diversity and Community Affairs, unites and fortifies the TC community.

“Our focus is not just about numbers or demographics. We are reaching toward a definition of community that has more to do with how the people within the College—students, staff, faculty, union members—interact with one another, how they come together in a shared space,” says Robinson.

The Office has created many such “shared spaces” over the past year. In March, the Office hosted “Education and the Hip-Hop Generation,” a panel comprised of Thurman Bridges, TC Adjunct Professor of Education and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow; Marc Lamont Hill, TC Associate Professor of English Education; and Christopher Emdin, TC Assistant Professor of Science Education, which focused on the intersection of education, hip-hop and learning processes.

As Jolene Lane, Director for Diversity and Community Affairs points out, “An event featuring three African American male professors from TC was definitely a first. The event was very successful—well attended by the TC community and reaching out into the surrounding community as well.”

Other events sponsored by the Office this past year include: “The Hibakusha Speak,” which brought three atomic bomb survivors from Japan to TC to tell their compelling stories; the Second Annual Cook-Off and Tasting Celebration, which featured the culinary creations including caramel macaroons, beer can chicken, tofu croutons and mac n’cheese cupcakes of TC community members; and “Write the Vision: Make it Clear,” a day-long conference on the role of the faith-based community in closing the education achievement gap, at which Peter Groff, Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, delivered the keynote address.

The current academic year began with two programs for Constitution Day, each attracting more than 600 attendees. The special pre-screening of the documentary, “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” followed by a panel of TC faculty addressing the salient issues in the film, packed the Cowin Center Auditorium. Benjamin Franklin Live!, hosted together with TC’s Office for School and Community Partnerships, drew more than 600 elementary and middle school children from neighborhood schools in Harlem.

The Office was established in 2001, in response to recommendations of the President’s 1999 Task Force Report, to lead the College’s “initiatives concerning community, diversity, civility, equity and anti-discrimination.” In 2008 TC President Susan Fuhrman elevated the Office to the Vice Presidential level, reflecting its importance to TC’s mission. The Office has sought to create an atmosphere of openness and to reduce “nervousness about the sense of the other.”

That same year, the Office launched a series of College-wide discussions to address the question “What kind of community do we want TC to be?” Using “Teaching the Levees,” the groundbreaking curriculum designed by a team led by TC faculty member Margaret Crocco, community members took an introspective look at the College and discussed issues of community and civility and the complexities in the current culture of how we treat one another. “It was very successful,” notes Robinson.

During 2009–10, the Office sponsored a series of similar dialogues, “Critical Conversations about Privilege,” an initiative that has continued into this academic year. “Privilege and social hierarchy are important,” Robinson says. “Everyone has some privilege and the responsibility to use their privilege for good.”

For Robinson, it’s important that such explorations occur in an atmosphere of “openness and not defensiveness.” Ultimately, the goal is for people from a variety of backgrounds to feel comfortable as they learn and work together, “reducing nervousness about the sense of the other.”

The Office meets that objective in part through the Vice President’s Diversity and Community Initiatives Grant Fund, which empowers TC community members to develop initiatives to address diversity concerns and help create the kind of community in which they seek to work and learn. Last year, for example, Emily Carman ’10, Lauren Gengo ’10, James Kang ’10 and Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz, Assistant Professor of English Education, applied for and received a grant to spearhead the Racial Literacy Roundtable Series for peer-to-peer conversations about race, class and privilege.

The goal is for people from a variety of backgrounds to feel comfortable as they learn and work together.
The Office also organizes and leads the College’s four-part Orientation for new faculty and staff, which offers a comprehensive introduction to TC, as well as trainings on Promoting Mutual Respect and Preventing Workplace Harassment (a combined sexual harassment and anti-discrimination session); Racial and Cultural Microaggressions—the unintentional slights or social cues by members of a dominant group; and Information Privacy Compliance, which includes focusing on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In addition, the Office hosts workshops to raise awareness around issues of inequity and bias, and generally promote a collegial environment. The breadth of the Office’s responsibilities include leading the College-wide professional staff evaluation review process.

In her email this past summer, Lynda Hallmark wrote, “It is a noble habit that I will more actively aspire to—to remain mindful and appreciative of the important and integral role that every single person plays in the intricate ‘ecosystem’ that is TC.”    

Robinson puts it more simply: “Everyone belongs.”

The Diversity Mission of Teachers College

To establish Teachers College as an institution that actively attracts, supports and retains diverse students, faculty and staff at all levels, demonstrated through its commitment to social justice, its respectful and vibrant community and its encouragement and support of each individual in the achievement of his or her full potential. The Office addresses policy and procedural concerns and issues of equity, yet also brings programming to enhance the College academically, intellectually and culturally—all while interacting with every constituency at the College.

Published Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010