Brenau University holds first Diversity Week

Dec 15, 2020
Kathryne Davis
Madia Cooper-Ashirifi, dance department chair, uses Zoom to teach a West African dance class over the summer. She was part of Brenau’s first Diversity Week. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

The Brenau University community gathered recently for a series of Diversity Week discussions on topics including class, poverty and perceptions; gender and sexuality; and cultural understanding and environmental justice.

The event, titled “Open Spaces: My Voice, Your Voice, Our Voices,” was the first of several events Brenau’s Working Group on Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence hopes to hold in its first year.

“It was a good time to focus the campus community on the ideas around Diversity Week,” said Didi Cassell, coordinator for special projects with the Provost’s Office and instructor in the Ivester College of Health Sciences. “This was kind of the major introduction into all of that. The feedback we received was all really positive, and people enjoyed the conversations we had. I think it also helped that we focused on more than just what people are used to hearing. We made it a little broader to consider the environmental and cultural factors.”

Cassell also helped coordinate between the International Committee and the Working Group on Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence to bring all the ideas together and do all the technical planning.

Madia Cooper-Ashirifi, Brenau dance department chair and working group member, co-led the day dedicated to class, poverty and perceptions. She has been working with Brenau’s International Committee over the past year to help make the Brenau community more aware of what is happening around the world related to race, culture and sexual orientation.

Faculty members involved paired up for discussions each day that included videos and activities for the participants. One activity challenged participants to suggest non-gender-specific names for occupations such as “postman,” “craftsman” and “mailman.”

During the discussion on race, stereotypes and how biases are shaped were shared. Those on the video call learned how poverty, power and environment intersect, along with how clean water and other needs are scarce in countries. On the last day, the discussions focused on what changes have been made in the Gainesville and Hall County communities and how Brenau has been encouraging students to be informed leaders to create their own change. Participants also learned about local civil rights and education groundbreaker Beulah Rucker Oliver, who established the Industrial School in Gainesville in the early 1900s.

Didi Cassell. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“There were a lot of people joining every day,” Cooper-Ashirifi said. “We had faculty constantly joining. We thought it was great because I think we faculty don’t know much about each other and our own experiences besides what we know as a specialty of what the faculty teaches versus who we identify as and who we are personally. I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes.”

Sage Magness, WC’ 07, is part of Brenau’s Diversity Equity and Inclusive Excellence working group and attended each virtual event during the week. Magness, who lives in Baltimore, Maryland, was glad this event was held and they were able to attend.

“It is so important to challenge our biases and assumptions and to hear perspectives and experiences different from our own,” Magness said. “Brenau women often hear the phrase ‘as gold refined’ to describe them. But I’ve had many conversations with alums recently about the element that refines us: fire. Growth doesn’t happen without discomfort, and if we never listen to other perspectives, we will never truly grow, understand and appreciate everyone’s identities and gifts. Every person at Brenau should be seen, acknowledged and celebrated for who they are, and it’s events like Diversity Week that can help shape that understanding.”

Diversity Week was the first event of several that the working group hopes to hold in its first year. In addition, Cooper-Ashirifi, who is also part of the Black Faculty and Staff Association, said that the association wants to partner with the working group in the future to bring more awareness to the Brenau community.

Despite having to hold Diversity Week virtually, attendees were able to learn and open up to one another, even after time was up.

“On Thursday, the last night of the event, there was a group or probably 10 or 12 people who stayed on the meeting after the session ended,” Cassell said. “It was mostly faculty and staff, but there was an alum and a student as well. It was just to chit chat and say how much we all enjoyed everything and have some community time. That was a lot of fun, too.”