Our community, our values

Monday, October 30, 2017

Since my arrival at Columbia last year, I’ve had the privilege of working with students, faculty and staff on projects that promote meaningful inclusion and belonging for all students at Columbia. Projects like co-chairing the Race, Ethnicity and Inclusion Task Force, serving on the search committee for Columbia’s first Muslim Life Coordinator, and coordinating the commemoration of the plaque dedicated to the Lenape people are among projects I’m proud to be a part of because these reflect and enrich our campus culture. 

Why do inclusion and belonging matter? Because we are many members of one community; we don’t just study here or work here, we can also care for one another, hold each other accountable, and commit to acting with each other’s best interest in mind. In my work here and at UT Austin, where I worked before coming to Columbia, I’ve learned that one can’t assume that each person at the University feels they are part of and valued in the community.  

Last week a student  approached me after an event to let me know that learning about efforts to cultivate community citizenship – which I’d talked about at her school’s orientation – truly impacted her. She had initially struggled with nerves and fear, then emotionally settled into a place where she could tell she actually belonged.

She – and every student at Columbia – belongs here. Yet there is more work to do and more projects to undertake. Meaningful inclusion and belonging are principles to which we must recommit ourselves continuously.

Of course, it can also be exhausting – particularly when many of us are struggling with the ongoing tension between freedom of expression and disavowing ideas we vehemently oppose. I too am affronted by the tactics of recent invitees to campus. I shudder to think of provocateurs cast as free speech martyrs in our nation’s recent history. But we don’t have to follow agitators’ scripts – this is our community, and we can decide how we choose to engage one another as members of it.

Make no mistake that Columbia rejects racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, white supremacy, bigotry, misogyny. But beyond statements, can we show up as members of one community, especially when we are in a particularly challenging place?

Community resilience in open debate – and especially during discord – serves to elevate truths and illuminate who we all are, and models what we expect from others. We can be heard and face the challenge of speakers who spread enraging messages. The best counter to debunking fake news and distorted facts is not to indulge but to refute ignorance. Playwright and novelist James Baldwin said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

As our community grapples with the impact of controversial speakers, we need to show that their messages do not define our values. Right actions will speak louder than corrupt words. A university-wide effort and message requires all of us as a resilient community. I’m ready to continue this work. Here are some actions you can take with me:

·         Propose and participate in events aimed at creating campus cohesion, inclusion and insight over invective. The Office of University Life may be able to help sponsor and support these. Apply here for a mini-grant.
·         Define what your values are, and state what you do not welcome on campus: share thoughts here or visit the talkboards on the ramps in Lerner (all day Monday).
·         Use #unitedCU on social posts related to contentious speakers and in messages of equality, inclusion and social justice (thanks to our University Life fellows and other students for sharing these ideas!) Wear #unitedCU - get a button at Butler Library, Ferris Booth Commons, John Jay Dining and JJ’s and other locations.

I look forward to writing again, about when we united CU, together.

Ixchel Rosal is Associate Vice President for Student Life and co-chair of Columbia’s Race, Ethnicity and Inclusion Task Force.