By Elaine C. Ray
More than 60 community center professionals from Stanford’s peer institutions gathered on campus recently to champion the vital role of their work and its impact across their universities.
The “Plus” wasn’t the weather, even though many attendees appreciated the spring-like temperatures. It was the opportunity to share best practices, get affirmation for the work they do and to dig deeply into conversations about equity, diversity and intersectionality. The occasion was the first-ever Ivy-Plus Conference for Cultural and Community Centers. Not just at Stanford, but the first such gathering anywhere. Sponsored by Stanford’s Centers for Equity, Community and Leadership, it took place at Stanford Wednesday, Jan. 31 through Friday, Feb. 2.
“What centers do is incredibly hard work”
On Thursday morning, Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs, officially welcomed the attendees, many of whom had traveled through various weather patterns and time zones to get to the Farm. More than 60 colleagues attended, representing such institutions as Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, UCLA, and Berkeley. “Community centers contribute to the social and intellectual fabric of the entire university, and the students who attend our colleges and universities benefit from the cultural and community centers and go on to become leaders all over the world,” said Brubaker-Cole. “It is appropriate that this community of community centers is sharing a vision for how we can collectively shape a vibrant pluralistic society. And it is essential that our community of higher education institutions listens deeply to the wisdom that you share with us about how we can realize this vision of an equitable, socially just and diverse society.”Brubaker-Cole added that for decades, community centers have been an invaluable resource to students, faculty, and staff. However, she noted that this work often does not garner the recognition or appreciation it deserves. She noted that much what centers do “is incredibly hard work, and a lot of it can be draining. It can be so challenging to find time for self care and to care for each other as professionals in this politically tumultuous time. Your dedication is unmatched.”“I am thrilled that you all have taken the initiative to begin this cross-institutional work,” she continued. “I can’t wait to see where your collaboration goes and to hear more about what you learn from one another in your time together.”Provost Persis Drell expressed similar sentiments when she greeted the conference later that morning.“The current national climate has presented new and greater challenges for you — for all of us. In that respect, the timing of this first conference seems particularly appropriate,” Drell said. “We have challenging work ahead of us. Not only because of the times we’re living in, but also because the path of personal growth isn’t easy. In doing this work, we have tremendous opportunities to learn from each other, to expand our views, and to create spaces for rich cultural and social exchange.”The conference agenda offered breadth and depth, with panel discussions on topics including “Activism and Free Speech;” “Mental Health and Well-Being;” and “DACA and the National Climate.” Roundtable discussion topics included “Gender Identity;” “Branding and Marketing Strategies;” “First-Generation Students;” and “Instersectionality in Community Building."
Creating Culturally Engaging Campus Environments
Thursday’s keynote speaker, Samuel Museus, PhD, associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the founding director of the National Institute for Transformation and Equity, shared a framework called CECE, which stands for Culturally Engaging Campus Environments. The model, based on decades of research across many campuses, provides a blueprint for intentionally structuring campus environments to maximize student success.
“When we talk about diversity, inclusion and equity for those of us for whom this work is our passion, it’s pretty clear to us what that means. But if you ask a 100 different people that you randomly select on any one campus, you are probably going to get a lot of different responses about what equity should look like.” Although Museus acknowledged that a standardized lens through which institutions can approach diversity may seem counterintuitive, he views it as a way to achieve “common understanding.”
“One of the realities about conversations about diversity that I’ve observed over the years is that on a larger scale they are often framed very negatively. That’s understandable, because we have a lot of systemic problems as a result of historical oppression and current contemporary forms of oppression, and we’re always focusing on those problems and responding to them.” But, Museus said that focusing on the negative often keeps us from having meaningful cross-institutional conversations.
The CECE framework is grounded in two major principles — cultural relevance and cultural responsiveness. Museus said that simply providing access to the same opportunities, be they capstone projects, study abroad opportunities, mentoring or service learning is not always enough to ensure that students who have been traditionally “minoritized” thrive. The key is to tailor the experiences so that they are more culturally relevant and culturally responsive to these students. For example, many of these students come to college with a desire or commitment to give back to their communities. Providing community service projects that satisfy those desires makes for more meaningful experiences. Museus also said that when it comes to professional development for faculty, his research found that when professors and instructors are flexible enough to adapt their syllabi and curricula to the experiences of the students in the classroom, students’ responses to micro-aggressions are lessened.
“Students are going to experience micro-aggressions — not that we shouldn’t try to stop them. But if you can orient your faculty to constructing an entire course that allows students to feel validated, when they do experience micro-aggressions, they might understand that you’re trying to create a more inclusive and equitable environment, Museus said.”
“The spaces you guys are creating and providing mean so much”
The conference capped with a keynote address on Friday, Feb. 2, by Stockton, Calif. Mayor Michael Tubbs, ’12. Tubbs talked about how the community centers prepared him for a life of leadership and coalition building.
Tubbs was raised by his mother and grandmother in some of the “rougher” parts of Stockton. His father has been incarcerated most of his life. While his high school was located in his neighborhood, the International Baccalaureate program he was enrolled in within that school only included two or three students from his neighborhood. He described the experience as “psychological warfare every day.” Teachers would say things like “Oh, you’re not black because you’re in calculus,” Tubbs recalled. After having spent most of his educational experiences in “predominantly white spaces,” Tubbs approached Stanford with a sense of dread, thinking he would endure much of the same.
“But luckily when I came here I was pleasantly surprised. I saw that although there were still micro-aggressions, there were still things to deal with, that college was by no means a Utopia, I also realized that there were safe spaces of resistance — spaces where I could learn and reflect and just be and not have my guard up all the time.” He also said he had a “real sense of inferiority” being at Stanford with students whose families had attended the university for generations.
Tubbs found the centers to be places where students come to form multicultural coalitions, develop leadership skills and learn how to access the tools and capital needed to make change that benefits everyone.
“It was in the centers where I did my first real political organizing.” His first year at Stanford coincided with the Great Recession and university budget cuts. Upperclass students from across the community centers sat Tubbs down and “explained to me why special fees funding was important and why we had to organize for it and why we had to fight for it and why ASSU elections mattered.”
He recalled that the Students of Color Coalition developed skills and strategies that ended up being useful for his later political aspirations. It was those “test runs and practice” that made moving into the larger political world “less foreign.”
“The spaces you guys are creating and providing mean so much,” Tubbs said, noting that though it is hard to measure the impact of their work, it is planting seeds and cultivating the soil for the next generation of leaders. He credited Jan Barker Alexander, interim assistant vice provost for student affairs and director of the Centers for Equity, Community and Leadership, who also served as director of the Black Community Services Center and is a Resident Fellow in Ujamaa, the African-American theme dorm, with planting those seeds for him.
“I submit to you I wouldn’t be mayor of Stockton if I hadn’t been at a university that had a Black House and an Ujamaa and people like Jan Barker Alexander. And I know Jan’s not alone in doing that. I know that all of you do that in your work each and every day,” Tubbs said.
The national conference was organized by Faith Kazmi, associate dean for student affairs and director of the Women’s Community Center and Cindy Ng, associate dean and director of the Asian American Activities Center.
Karen Biestman, former director of Stanford’s Native American Cultural Center, conceived the idea of the conference a few years ago, and returned to campus, pleased to see her idea come to fruition. She described the meeting as an “uplifting chorus of wisdom and fellowship.”
“The late Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller urged us all to ‘lead with a good mind,’ which requires intentionally listening and learning in ways that promote real understanding, Biestman said. “I’ve always learned the most working with courageous, candid, empathetic and innovative peers. I offer deep gratitude to Stanford leaders who set the inaugural stage for real impact and for dynamic forums to follow.”