The Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 25, 1999
Jan. 25, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 19


S.e.e.d. Sprouts Dialogues On Diversity

Multicultural Student Affairs program aims to topple walls of prejudice

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Some of the 48 resident advisers were shocked at the words that were coming out of their own mouths. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, some of them very derogatory, were being bantered around the room with an uncomfortable ease.

But they had been told not to hold back. Whatever stereotype they knew of groups such as Asian women, young black men, or those of the Jewish faith, they were encouraged to vocalize and then write down on large sheets of paper.

The exercise, which took place in the AMRI multipurpose room last week, was part of an hour-and-a-half diversity workshop conducted by members of the S.e.e.d. program. The focus group was the entire resident adviser staff of the Homewood campus.

Heather Whitehead, Ameila Kasper, Zaire Durant-Young, Sherry Johnson and Walter Lin, all S.e.e.d.s, at a recent workshop for resident advisers at Homewood.

The stereotyping, although negative at times, was not intended to be hateful or demeaning but rather to illustrate that many preconceptions based on race and religion still exist in today's society.

S.e.e.d., which stands for Students Educating and Empowering for Diversity, was founded a year ago by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs as a way to raise campus awareness on issues of racism, sexism and other types of bigotry or intolerance. The workshops, which began in the fall semester, are intended to spark a dialogue on diversity issues and to break down walls of prejudice.

Ralph Johnson, director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, says that for a racially diverse campus such as Johns Hopkins, it's important that these issues are faced.

"It's absolutely critical," Johnson says. "When you come to a place where there are so many ethnically, culturally, socially and economically different people, you are going to encounter misunderstandings and conflict. The response is to manage it and provide education to bring people to a point where they are discussing it openly."

Johnson, who came to Hopkins in 1994, had started a similar program at the University of South Carolina when he was that university's director of minority student affairs. He says that the program's success there gave him the confidence it could work at Hopkins.

The program is made up of workshops conducted by carefully selected and trained students called S.e.e.d.s. The first group of S.e.e.d.s got together last January and had a two-day training session to educate themselves to diversity issues and to prepare themselves for the actual workshops. Johnson says he broke the group into pairs and had each prepare a 30-minute diversity workshop.

"The rest of us sat in the audience and we role-played some of the attitudes and some of the behaviors they would receive from students so as to help them develop technique," Johnson says.

The recent workshop with the resident advisers was the fourth performed by the S.e.e.d.s. In addition to the stereotyping exercise, the workshop included an exercise called social barometer, in which participants respond to a "hot topic" by placing themselves along a continuum of agreement levels. One of the topics posed to the RAs was whether same-sex partners should be allowed to live in the same dorm room. Numbers of + 5, + 3, - 3 and - 5 were taped to the wall, and the participants were told to line up where they stood on the issue--for example, + 5 if they strongly agreed, or -3 if they slightly disagreed.

The S.e.e.d.s then asked why they had put themselves in front of each number. The result was a prolonged discussion in which the students defended their opinions and discussed how they would deal with that issue if confronted by it.

When the dialogue ended, the S.e.e.d.s did not offer a solution or any pat answers but rather went on to another topic.

Neal Dandona, one of the resident advisers who attended the workshop, says he liked the way the workshop was handled.

"[The S.e.e.d.s] really are just facilitators," says Dandona, a senior. "At the end of the discussion, it's kind of open-ended; you get a certain sense that everybody has their own opinion. The [S.e.e.d.s] are not necessarily giving you the right answer but [showing you] that different opinions can coexist."

Zaire Durant-Young, one of the S.e.e.d.s at the RA workshop, says they were trained not to impart their own opinions.

"We are just moderators, not authority figures. We're all on the same level," says Young, a sophomore. "We try not to get involved in the conversation, except if the conversation isn't going anywhere, then we might throw a wrench in to get people involved."

Johnson reiterates that the S.e.e.d.s are not there to tell students what they should or shouldn't do when faced with a diversity issue.

"There are no absolutes," Johnson says. "We want the students to draw their own conclusions."

However, Johnson did add that the S.e.e.d.s should be correcting misinformation when they hear it. "We don't want people to leave a workshop ill-informed," he says.

Currently, the S.e.e.d. program offers workshops to any student organization or classroom on the Homewood campus, where it plans to have between five to 10 workshops this coming semester. Soon, the S.e.e.d.s hope to take their program to other Hopkins and off-campus locations.

To schedule a S.e.e.d. workshop or for more information, contact the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs at 410-516-5435.