A Community Forum for Racial Reconciliation at Southern Arkansas University
It started when Dr. Linda Tucker, an English professor at Southern Arkansas University, reached out to the Institute asking for guidance on how to elevate discussions about race on the SAU campus. A partnership was formed and in late January, we kicked off the first campus discussion titled The Glass House.
But, before I delve into the details of the discussion, I want to tell you more about the inspiration behind the project.
The Glass House is named in honor of a former student at Southern Arkansas University, Heather Glass. Dr. Tucker encountered Heather in 2003 when she was a student in her freshman composition class. It was Dr. Tucker’s first semester in a tenure-track position at SAU. She had completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of Alberta with a specialization in African American literature and culture, and a primary focus on the writing and cultural productions of African American men.
One day Heather visited Dr. Tucker in her office and said that due to a discussion they had in her class a few days before, she was convinced that she should no longer use the “N-word.” Heather said she’d realized that not only had she used the word a lot, but she thought the word often. She shared her new view with her husband who was less than impressed when she suggested that he, too, should stop using the word. He accused her of sounding like her “N-word” loving professor.” Heather told Dr. Tucker, “I know he didn’t mean that as a compliment, but I think I’d like to be a teacher one day or maybe even a professor!”
Through a facilitated class discussion, Heather decided to change something about her own behavior, attempted to get someone close to her to change their behavior, and began to imagine herself working in a setting that would allow her to reach a broader audience.
Sadly, Heather was never able to complete her college career or become a professor. She withdrew from college her sophomore year and died years later at the age of 22 leaving behind two little girls.
By the time Dr. Tucker finished telling me her story, I was truly moved. A quote from one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons immediately came to mind. “You don’t need a college degree to serve… All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” (“Drum Major for Justice”)
With Heather in mind, Dr. Tucker and I began to work on a viable format. I suggested that we convene a focus group to obtain input about the level of campus and community readiness for dialogue on race issues. To achieve this, in November I facilitated a meeting with several local clergy, community leaders, SAU students, and faculty members. The questions, comments, and concerns of all parties confirmed the degree to which such a forum is needed; to allow people from different races to understand each other more accurately and see each other more clearly.
Everyone has heard that those who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones. Although the image of a glass house often reminds us of judgment and hypocrisy, it also symbolizes our human vulnerability and interdependence. Glass houses are transparent. Though the walls may function as barriers, their transparency makes it possible to see how others live and for others to see how we live.
The Glass House is premised on the idea that racial reconciliation can only happen if people are willing to become vulnerable, to talk openly and honestly across racial divides; to seek first to understand and then to be understood; to understand that such conversations will be uncomfortable; and to trust that the environment in which they are occurring will be safe. The hope is that such dialogue will help everyone to better understand and to see with greater clarity others’ experiences, their effects their world views, and their ways of operating in the world. The goal is not to have everyone agree or come to see the world in the same way. Rather, the aim is for people to better understand others’ experiences, behaviors, and points of view. The Glass House discussions have the potential to create better understanding, to correct assumptions based on misunderstanding, and thus to encourage interactions among people based on more authentic relationships with one another.
The First Forum
In late January, we kicked off the first Glass House forum which included 35 attendees of diverse race, age, gender, cultural background, and geographic origin—mostly students. The session ran 90 minutes and we opened by stating the forum’s purpose, establishing ground rules, and introducing ourselves. The forum discussion was lively and robust while focusing on two central questions:
- Have we entered a post-racial era where racism no longer exists?
- Is either race or racism an issue at Southern Arkansas University?
The differing perspectives on both questions not only enriched the dialogue but also led the group to want more opportunities for similar discussions in the future. We concluded that there is tremendous benefit in listening and attempting to understand how others see the world through our unique cultural lenses most often dictated by exposure and experience. Mission accomplished!
After assessing the outcomes of the initial forum, Dr. Tucker and I agreed that this model for cross-cultural dialogue on issues related to race works. The next forum will be held in early March and we look forward to many more conversations that will ultimately spread beyond the campus and into the broader Magnolia community. The Glass House gets us one step closer to realizing the Institute’s vision statement: To make Arkansas the best state in the country for promoting and celebrating racial and ethnic diversity.
Dr. Michael R. Twyman
Director, UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity