Look into any classroom at UT and you will find students who belong to a wide variety of social spheres, religions, ethnicities and cultures.
Not as often do you see students talking openly about these distinctions.
Diversity Dialogues is a monthly program held by the Office of Multicultural Student Life in the Black Cultural Center that aims to address such differences in a civil and open-minded way.
Tuesday night, a group of five students, two MSL staff members and a professor – acting as group facilitator – gathered in a circle to talk about personal experiences with diversity.
Joe Miles, assistant professor in counselor psychology and the discussion's mediator, described a system of dialogue called the "Lara Method." This method holds that constructive dialogue is achieved when individuals listen to others, affirm what they say, respond and add meaningful information.
"I think having some of these skills, like knowing how to communicate one-on-one is important for personal relationships," Miles said. "But, more broadly, these skills are important for navigating in the diverse society we all live in."
The hour-long event included Miles sharing information about effective dialogue techniques, but the majority of the session was devoted to open-ended questions about diversity and student's views on cultural issues.
"I thought this was going to be a lecture and that I wasn't really going to be able to talk," Michael Porter, senior in political science, said. "But I actually felt empowered and like I was really able to share my thoughts and hear everyone else's."
The origin of the Diversity Dialogues program can be traced back to 2010 when Chancellor Jimmy Cheek announced the formation of the Task Force on Civility and Community in response to "a series of incidents that reflect bias on campus," according to the group's final report.
The final report outlined ways for the university to incorporate principles of civility and community into existing programs, like student orientation, and to implement new initiatives. One such initiative was an intergroup dialogue program. The first Diversity Dialogues event followed in the spring of 2011.
Despite the small amount of participants, Tuesday's event managed to make an impression on those that did attend.
"I went in not knowing what it was at all, but I came out shocked in a good way," Makinzi Butram, freshman in retail and consumer science, said. "I never thought I'd be in a place where I'd feel comfortable sharing what I believe in and listening to other views as well, but I experienced that tonight."
Katherine Waxstein, another Dialogues attendee, is a senior working as a "diversity educator" for the Office of Multicultural Student Life. In this position, Waxstein and a group of other trained students conduct diversity workshops and programs for different organizations.
Waxstein was pleased with the outcome of the first Diversity Dialogues of the semester.
"I think it went really well," she said. "I find conversations like these to be the most meaningful and fulfilling that I've had in my college experience."
In order to civilly discuss hot-button issues like gay marriage, Miles said it is important to think about the other person's narrative of life experiences that led them to have that opinion.
"We all have our own experiences, backgrounds and social identities and we can end up in very similar or different places," Miles explained. "Two of the participants in today's dialogue had similar opinions, but had very different ways of getting there."
Brooke King, junior in biology and an active member of the Lambda Student Union, expressed the importance of interaction between students.
“I think that if you can’t have a real conversation with someone and get to know them and care about them and what they’re going through, it’s hard to create a community on campus,” King said. “If there’s no community, it’s just you go to school here, you take classes here and you go home.”
The BCC will be hosting Diversity Dialogues on the first Tuesday of every month. Miles hopes that this event will continue to grow and impact more UT students.
“Ideally, I’d like to see a larger intergroup dialogue program at the university and have many students engaged in discussion about these issues,” Miles said.
Porter feels that the the skills acquired from open dialogue will be useful in situations beyond university life.
“When you go out into the world, you’re going to be faced with people different than you every single day,” said Porter, who advocates for LGBT rights on campus. “No matter where you move, from the smallest town in Ohio to the biggest city in California, there’s going to be diversity and there’s going to be opportunities for interaction.
"Now is the time to learn how to have conversations and facilitate dialogue with others.”
The next Diversity Dialogue is entitled, “Natural Hair: Exploration of Beauty and Internalized Racism” and will be held at BCC on Oct. 8 at 7 p.m.