The conversations can be challenging. Candid. Emotional.
They also can be enlightening. Empowering. Transformational.
For two hours a week over a six-week period, a half dozen USF faculty and staff members came together to discuss issues of race. They were part of a pilot program for Dismantling Racism Team Study Circles, organized by the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity (DIEO).
The program is ongoing, and DIEO officials expect to offer several study circles simultaneously. The program is among USF’s many efforts to develop anti-racist practices, resources and initiatives.
“Racism is a complex issue,” said Dr. Haywood Brown, who led DIEO when the program was implemented. He now serves as senior associate vice president of academic affairs for USF Health and vice dean of faculty affairs for the Morsani College of Medicine. “We didn’t just get here yesterday and we won’t get out of this in a day. The study circles follow what leaders around the country are calling for: a frank dialogue on racism.”
Brown calls the study circles program “an opportunity we cannot let pass us by.”
“Part of this is gaining perspectives from each other and learning how to use these new ideas to not just help ourselves, but also help the people we interact with every day,” he said. “Prejudice/bias is learned behavior. An individual’s mindset impacts attitude and attitude impacts behaviors.”
Cecil Howard, DIEO’s associate vice president and the Tampa campus’s chief diversity officer, says the goal is to reach as many faculty, staff and administrators as possible.
“If everybody has this opportunity, it’s going to change some mindsets,” he said. “We still get a lot of complaints in our office, a lot of allegations of bias, especially racism. We want to put ourselves out of a job by creating a place that’s more welcoming, a place where people feel respected.”
Howard proposed the program to the DIEO team in the wake of the killings last year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black individuals and the subsequent protests in the Tampa Bay region and across the country. He has seen the effectiveness of the study circles in Gainesville, where he served as chief diversity officer, and while serving in the same position on the USF St. Petersburg campus, prior to moving to the Tampa campus in 2017.
“The basic concept is to bring a diverse group of people together to talk about race candidly, in a safe space, in a way they’ve never done it before,” Howard said. “The one thing you want to make sure of is that nobody is afraid to speak their mind.”
As DIEO staff and the study circle participants emphasized, that meant the “Las Vegas rule” applied: What was said in the weekly sessions stayed among the participants and facilitators.
Patsy Sanchez describes the study circles as “an invitation for introspection.” As DIEO’s director of diversity and inclusion, Sanchez was responsible for organizing the pilot program, including the selection of participants.
“We want study circle participants to delve into their own long-held beliefs, to really look inside themselves before anything else,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to look at the way they view others, pause, and then learn about them. Why do we see things the way we do? The ultimate goal is not only that they feel comfortable expressing their ideas and feelings, but that they try on somebody else’s ideas.”
That means diversity within the study circles is critical. In selecting participants for the pilot program, Sanchez made sure they didn’t work together and she looked closely at a variety of demographic factors, including age, gender and ethnicity.
As the study circle was coming to a close, the participants were asked to develop a single project through which they could engage others in important conversations about diversity and inclusion. However, rather than coming up with a group project, each of the participants created their own initiative – a pleasant surprise to the DIEO team.
One of the participants, JoAnn Urofsky, general manager of WUSF Public Media, worked with her leadership team to develop a survey of the organization’s 70 employees. A new diversity, equity and inclusion committee is reviewing the results of the survey and prioritizing strategies and actions. She is not part of the committee.
“Their work is ongoing,” Urofsky said. “I don’t see this as something we wrap up in a neat package and put away in six months.”
One of the survey questions asked whether employees believe WUSF is an inclusive place to work.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, the average was 7,” Urofsky said. “Not bad, but that means we can do better. The survey also asked if employees felt respected by their colleagues. The responses ranged from 4 to 10, with an average of 7. Again, not bad, but we have to do better.”
She wants to make sure that diversity is front and center in the hiring process.
“When you bring someone new into your department, how do you help them with the culture, how do you understand and respond to their culture, how do you make sure their colleagues are respectful and receptive to them?” she said.
Another study circle participant, Ariadne Miranda, associate director of INTO USF’s English Language Program, followed up on the experience by suggesting to her colleagues that they form a working group to regularly explore a variety of issues, including race, gender and sexual orientation. Six have volunteered so far.
“We need to do something, we need to commit to taking action,” Miranda said.
In addition to getting to know other members of the USF community, Miranda appreciated the opportunity the study circle offered “to understand the bias that we all have in different ways, the discrimination we’ve either seen or been subjected to.”
She speaks from first-hand experience.
“I have been in situations where, for example, the point has been made – and not necessarily in a positive way – that I have a certain accent, a certain ethnic background,” said Miranda, a native of Panama. “Beyond sharing my own experience, I wanted to learn about others’ experiences and what actions we can take here at USF and within my own department.”
She describes the study circle as “a really powerful experience.”
“We all have blind spots, no matter where we come from, whether about skin color, gender or religion, to cite a few examples,” she said. “We all see things from our own perspective, and we may think ‘I’m not a racist’. This is an opportunity to learn how to be an anti-racist.”