KNOXVILLE— When Jayanni Webster teamed up with fellow seniors Abbey Schaplowsky and Corie Fine on a social work class project, they had no clue their ideas would turn into a university-funded diversity program.
The culmination of their efforts is “Dialogue: A Conversation on Race and Religion at UT,” a film screening and panel discussion to be held at 6:00 p.m. on March 6 in the Black Cultural Center. The event is free and open to the public.
When Webster, a college scholars major from Memphis, and social work majors Schaplowsky from West Bloomfield, Michigan, and Fine from Knoxville got together for this class project, they were struck by how different their backgrounds are—not just ethnically, but also geographically, religiously, and socio-economically. This got them thinking: if one small group in one class is so diverse, what about campus as a whole?
They devised “Dialogue” as a way to create a safe, welcoming, and inclusive way for students to talk about different social issues, specifically race and religion, and learn from each other.
Their idea was to choose twelve students to participate in individual interviews and then come together for two one-hour sessions facilitated by Kelly Baker, lecturer in religious studies, and Steve Pearson, lecturer in English, each chosen because of their own personal and professional experiences with race and religion.
When the girls presented the project in class, their professor recommended they submit a proposal to UT’s Ready for the World Initiative for funding to bring the idea to life.
So they did.
The group was granted $3,000 by Ready for the World to get their ideas off of paper and into motion.
“These sessions are important because they create dialogue among students about the broad issue of race and religion, issues that usually polarize students. We want to make a gray area where you don’t have to be either/or, where people can discuss these things comfortably using their own personal experiences,” Webster said.
The group selected average students who they thought would have valuable life experiences to bring to the table, not just based on their professional title or major. These students participated in dialogue about their personal views, sharing with each other instead of debating.
“Following the film on March 6, a panel will take questions from the audience and talk about ways to take what we learned in the dialogue and apply it in our lives; how to have these conversations with others and be ready for the world we live in,” Webster said. “To some extent, these conversations are happening already, but sometimes people feel uncomfortable. This is to offer a safe environment for everyone to voice their ideas.”
“We hope this is a success and is received well by campus,” she said. “We also hope someone picks up the project as we graduate this year and continues the dialogue with this topic or even moving on to other issues, including gender, sexuality, or class.”
The project is sponsored by Ready for the World; the Colleges of Social Work and Communications and Information; the departments of political science, geography, religious studies, modern foreign language and literature, anthropology, Africana studies, and history; the Office of Multicultural Student Life; the Office of Student Orientation Leadership and Development and Amnesty International.
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