It's Friday afternoon on the Bexley campus of Capital University. By 1:30, about 25 students have trickled into The Denvy A. Bowman Diversity and Inclusion Center at the Harry C. Moores Student Union. After a few minutes of small talk and the chance to dive into a stack of boxed pizzas, the students position their chairs in a circular fashion to better facilitate the impending discussions.
The group, which is openly diverse, includes Muslims, African Americans, members of the LGBTQ community—and a sprinkling of European Americans. This is Pizza and the Paper, a regular program that features an open-forum, student-led discussion about current events.
On this particular day, Naima Ilmi, community relations chair for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), acts as the student facilitator. With 9/11 only two days away, the discussion begins with this topic. "September 11th will always be a day when I have to hold my breath," said one Muslim participant. "I can't mourn for those people who lost their lives because I am afraid for my own life on that day." From there, the hour-long discussion turned to the current presidential race, voting, President Obama's recent trip to Laos, and whether it's right or wrong to protest the national anthem. No topic is off limits. Open dialogue is the point.
– Alex Carter, senior
Pizza and the Paper may be one of the most popular ODI programs, but it only scratches the surface. In fact, Almar Walter, director of Diversity and Inclusion, makes the point that ODI goes beyond simply offering great programs. "We want to make diversity a core piece of the institutional identity and fabric," he said. "As more minorities continue to enter higher education, they will be looking for institutions that can support them and make them feel included. We must prepare for this diversity and become more inclusive."
Like many students, Ilmi, a junior, has experienced that inclusion firsthand. "Once I found ODI, I gained a sense of pride about being part of Capital," she said. "I found the confidence to excel in my studies because I know there is a place where I am cared for and heard."
Alex Carter, a fifth-year senior, has been an active participant in ODI and its programs for the past four years. "ODI has given me a chance to connect with people in my own community—and in other communities—on a deeper level," he said. "It has also allowed me to meet other young leaders who want to make the school and the world a better place. When we leave Capital, we will be able to take this to our family, friends and workplaces."
Much of this is now possible thanks to a new space on campus. The Denvy A. Bowman Diversity and Inclusion Center was unveiled this past summer following Bowman's retirement from the presidency and a decade of service and leadership that left Capital more secure, diverse and open than any time in its history. Located adjacent to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the new center features modern aesthetics, a glass wall and open doors that invite people to join in the discovery and exchanges that are taking place.
Join us for a special reception and dedication of the Diversity and Inclusion Center at 3 pm on Thursday, October 6.
The new center more than doubles the footprint and functionality of a space that's intended to be a hub of engagement and growth for anyone who can benefit from exchanges with and better understanding of those who are different from themselves. "It's a safe and welcoming space for anyone interested in meaningful interaction with diverse groups of students from across the world," Walter added.
"ODI may have the highest traffic of any office on campus," Carter said. "It's a place where students can find social, academic and emotional support—a space where they feel safe and where ideas are shared." By the end of the third week of school, there were already 604 recorded student visits to the center. That's an average of 43 visits a day and double the number of visits that occurred during the previous school year.
Several years ago, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion was referred to as Multicultural Affairs, and its purpose was to provide a space for under-represented students. It included additional support structures, or programs, designed to help them succeed as a minority. About 5 to 7 years ago, higher education started to change that model and expand beyond those individuals who identify as minorities.
"The purpose was to embrace people who are under-represented, but also to embrace majority demographics, or European Americans," Walter explained. "We now know that those who have the most to gain (from diversity work) aren't the people who realize its value, but the people who may not realize its value. This may be individuals who have not had a conversation with someone different from themselves." That's why efforts need to be directed to people who don't have this cultural piece.
Just three months on the job, Capital’s new president, Beth Paul, has accepted the challenge to continue the good work that Bowman started. "We will deepen our commitment to building a model inclusive community," Paul said recently at a meeting with faculty, staff and administrators on reconnecting with Capital's purpose. "There is no question that our world needs this, and there is no question that our world doesn't know how. So let's be brave. Let's be bold. Let's dig in and let's figure it out, and let's be a national model."
With that in mind, Walter is confident that Capital University can emerge as a leader in diversity and inclusion within the next five years. "What's happening is very thoughtful capacity-building," he said. "This will enable us to position ourselves to be one of the most inclusive institutions around."
With the new center in place, the University appears to be well on its way. "In our previous space, people didn't really take what we did seriously," Carter said. "There wasn't really a place to come where we could get ideas on the table. The new center gives us a place and an opportunity to collect our ideas and work together toward our collective goals."