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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Student leaders organize new NSW talk at last moment

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“There are sometimes good attempts to be provocative and there are bad attempts, and this is one of those bad attempts,” said new Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston about the controversial diversity presentation shown to the Peer Leaders in preparation for New Student Week. An outside theater group, GTC Dramatic Dialogue, put on a performance called “Strange Like Me,” meant to spark discussion about diversity. Attending peer leaders, however, found it inappropriately aggressive given its heavy use of slurs and lack of trigger warnings.

“Some of the strongest people I know were in that room,” explained Abhimanyu Lele ’16, “and they broke down because of the things that were being said to them.” So what went so wrong?

According to Lele, the presentation was problematic from the start. “It started off with this monologue which included basically every bigoted slur you can think of delivered in the span of a few minutes,” Lele told The Carletonian. The program then moved into a series of scenarios in which offensive comments or situations were shown and the audience was asked to respond with questions and comments.

Lele decided to leave the performance in protest, and explains why so many students chose to do the same: “The performance was insulting enough that a lot of people couldn’t personally handle it so they left. A lot of the rest of us also walked out because we felt it was not a constructive way to teach new students about inclusivity.” Dean Livingston led a debrief session after the program and talked with many peer leaders, faculty, and staff about the event. “I think there was a range of emotions that people felt,” she said, “ and I think that there was some anger, and overall disappointment. They didn’t need that type of training to best represent the Carleton community.”

Of course, students expressed a variety of opinions during the debrief session. Some chose to defend, others criticism the choice of program, but the overwhelming majority agreed Pugh said the actors told her Carleton’s reaction was atypical, and expressed her opinion on why this is so: “Usually no one in the audience is willing to speak up, so they exaggerate and go above and beyond with the offensive comments to elicit response. They didn’t realize that with the peer leaders, who are both passionate about these issues and very vocal, it was going to elicit strong responses.” Dean Livingston also acknowledged that it might be a good approach for a different environment, saying “that group has probably given hundreds of those presentations and they probably have gone over very well. It propelled the [peer leaders] to have a stellar presentation.

“Because they saw what they didn’t want, they knew exactly what they did want and the impact they wanted to have. Out of something that could have been really bad, something really good came about.” During the debrief session, Dean Livingston explained the program would not be shown to great applause from the peer leaders. According to Livingston, this prompted the peer leaders to brainstorm a new diversity program.

In three days, a working group of peer leaders created the first diversity program delivered by students during NSW, and it received the high praise from all peer leaders and new students who witnessed the original presentation.

“It was amazing,” said Pugh, “so much better than [the original] program would have ever been, so powerful, uplifting, positive and I think that’s what Carleton needs.” Lele explained how the group had been well trained to deliver this program, and that the presentation drew from styles of previous presentations and trainings. The presentation discussed the complexities of the concepts of microaggressions, oppression, privilege and personal stories from students at Carleton presented along with opportunity for conversation and dialogue. Dean Livingston agreed, saying “It was great that the students came up with the idea, and that they were Carleton stories. To me, it highlighted that we trust our students to present and talk about difficult topics. There is no one we could have paid that would have done a better job than they did, and what it displayed was who we are as a community.”

The program that the students presented may be shown again in future New Student Weeks. Livingston reported that she would love to reuse the presentation, “and have every class come up with their own stories. I can’t remember anything in New Student Week here or in previous institutions that has received such rave reviews.”

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