More than a year ago, Rockhurst University received a grant from the Hall Family Foundation, to support, in part, an educational experiment. The premise — create a cohort of five students, faculty, staff and community members, each of whom would be asked to take part in a series of monthly seminars throughout the academic year based on diversity, equity and inclusion taught by community leaders as well as Rockhurst faculty and staff.
Called the ‘Home for All’ seminar series, this program was part traditional college course, part reading group, and part support group, as these participants from all walks of life engaged in open, frank discussions about DEI topics and concepts.
Along the way, the members of the cohort became more than students sharing a classroom — they became a tight-knit community of their own. The Hall Foundation grant that funded the series allowed the University to develop its undergraduate and graduate DEI certificate programs and a future DEI toolkit for Rockhurst students. The seminars served as something of a proof of concept for those programs, and responses from the participants each month will also serve as the basis for an ongoing academic research project on the impact of such an experience on their work.
Participants like Jessica Samuel, facilities purchasing manager at Rockhurst, said that the wide range of topics and activities helped underscore the big lessons while allowing for personal experiences of everyone to come through. “I’ve learned you just never know what someone’s story is, and I honestly feel that [through] learning a bit of everyone’s story with the background exercises,” she said. “For example, the personal poems we all made to describe our family dynamics. Some traditions were so much like my own or even similar to my family’s, and others were uniquely different.”
It’s a tough dynamic to pull off given a room of strangers, Samuel added — especially when talking about heavy topics like prejudice and discrimination. “What most stood out to me was how honest and humble the participants were in this series. It’s normal for people to not be as honest as they truly would be in front of a group of strangers,” she said. “I even held back and kind of read the room first. But I was pleasantly surprised and appreciative of how open and honest everyone was about their bias, how they’ve been affected by bias, and what they want to do to change what’s wrong with bias.”
That process of finding common ground while learning to appreciate unique perspectives and cultural differences brought the cohort closer together, which in turn allowed for more honest conversations. “I appreciated the conversation and time for fellowship with one another,” said Gina Speese, associate director of annual giving and data analytics at Rockhurst. “This series allowed time to listen to one another’s stories, and to learn and see the world and their experiences from a different lens. This was invaluable time and I love how the group bonded together.”
Instructors for the seminar included a former Obama Administration official on aging and a Saint Louis University faculty member, Mark Pousson, Ph.D., who talked about inclusion as it relates to disability. Wanda Taylor, a former member of the University’s neighborhood committee who lives near Rockhurst’s campus, has spent part of her career in corporate diversity training and presented two seminars on microaggressions and unconscious bias, and a third seminar on gender identity. She said that she enjoyed the chance to step into the classroom and share some of that knowledge.
“When addressing DEI topics, it helps to have a diverse group to enhance the learning. Having a mixture of students, staff, faculty and community representatives helped to bring diverse perspectives,” she said.
More voices is always better, she said, while commending the courage and commitment of the participants. “The participants’ eagerness to learn is what stood out to me. All the participants were currently in school or working full-time jobs, so they had to have a strong commitment to participate,” she said. “That was encouraging to me. No one had to be there: they chose to be there and to participate. I felt each person left ready to make changes in their own lives and the lives of those around them.”
That was part of the stated goal of the Home for All series from the beginning — not just to give the participants a new vocabulary or food for thought, but to give them tools for their everyday interactions, whether those be at work or in their everyday lives. Candace Villanueva Greer, college and career manager at Prep-KC, said the work she did as part of the Home for All series will help in her work of expanding college access in the Kansas City region.
“I know that the information covered will be valuable because I now have more resources to share and more insight on critical topics that are not typically discussed or thought of,” she said.
Tyler Johnson, learning and assessment services librarian at Rockhurst’s Greenlease Library, said that he joined the cohort for personal reasons. “I appreciated the ability to share my story, about accepting myself as a member of the LGBTQ community within a larger group. I never had that opportunity before,” he said. “Since others had the courage to convey their own stories relating to the struggles they encountered in the realm of DEI, I felt more comfortable telling my story.”
But he added that he’s leaving with knowledge that will help him serve current and future students at Rockhurst. “Libraries pride themselves on being a ‘Home for All,’ and this seminar series gave me the skills to make that saying a reality,” he said.
By Tim Linn, Director of Communications, Rockhurst University