“But are they ready for the conversation?”
It seems as though somehow I’ve heard this on repeat the last couple of weeks. Each time the “they” in question was first year students. Each time the “conversation” in question was what might be called a difficult one. A discussion about values. The lack of inclusion on our campuses. Leadership philosophies. College preparedness. Equitable access to courses and career prep. The topics we want our students to discuss because it shows that they are critical thinkers and engaged citizens. We spend much of our time asking that students become forward thinkers and folks who are able to look objectively at the world, who move the world towards positive change. And then we say, “I don’t think they are ready”.
The issue is, I don’t think it’s the students who aren’t ready for the conversation, I think it’s us. Perhaps we haven’t done our own self work to get to a place where we can engage students in a conversation about values, equity, and our own hopes for the world. These topics are hard. They are scary. They require that we put ourselves on the line and be vulnerable with our own values and philosophies. That we discuss the injustices we see on our campuses. That we risk saying we don’t agree with the way our students see things, or how our administration sees things. To have these conversations productively requires a level of self disclosure we might just not be ready to give our students.
Ultimately, we fear the same things our students do -- judgement, lack of knowledge, appearing ignorant or as if we don’t understand. What I’m asking is for us to do it anyway. Jump in. Take the risk. Speak from a place of authenticity, and nurture growth.
And I recognize that some of you who are reading this are shouting at the screen, “but my environment doesn’t let me have this conversation”. Because you are a person of color, because you are a woman, because you aren’t cisgendered, because your job would be on the line if you engaged in conversations on your campus around these topics. And to that I say, it makes it that much more important that those of us who can have these conversations, do. Use your privilege, and again, jump in and take the risk that others can’t.
Here are three things to keep in mind as you get ready to enter the conversation:
Practice. Find someone you trust and can dialogue with. I was chatting with a friend the other day over coffee. I said, “I like to go deep, like let’s not stay at the first level, let’s go to level 2.” She replied, “you like to start at level 3 or 4.” There are people in your life who are ready to go deep. Who you can talk to you and take risks with your learning. Who feel safe to talk with and ask questions about what is going on in the world.
It’s not about being an expert, it’s about shared dialogue. In my experience, students are only expecting an expert if you front that way. Instead, if you enter into the space, and set the expectation for shared learning and growth, they’ll be in it, too. Model your own learning, and they will feel comfortable to do the same.
Be ready to sit in the mess. There will be mistakes. It will feel uncomfortable and hard at times. And someone may get angry. Someone may question what is happening. But more often than not, someone will also feel heard. They’ll feel recognized. And they will believe that dialogue is welcomed in the environment.
Ready to start? Here are a few questions to guide your way. What conversations are you not having on campus right now? Who do you want to engage in conversation? How will you make sure that all voices are at the table?
And, check out the Controversy with Civility Series: The Art of Disagreeing Well for more tips on embracing the messiness that comes along with these types of conversations.
About the author: Julie Larsen is a student affairs professional and Seattle native who currently works at the University of Washington in Advising and Orientation. She spends much of her professional life time thinking about para-professional student development, equity and inclusion in leadership education, and how technology both impacts and enhances the connections students make with a campus community. Her personal life time is dedicated to finding the perfect burrito, exploring the many breweries in Seattle, roller derby, yoga, and becoming a “real” bike commuter. She completed her BA in Psychology at Knox College, and her MA in Student Development at Seattle University. Connect with her on Twitter at @julieclarsen.