Campus Climate Week explores issues through plays

Recently, a group of students, alumni and faculty gathered to discuss and explore through performance the sort of climate unique to the Puget Sound student body.

Diversity is the subject of the 2012 Campus Climate Survey, an assembly of student experience and feedback that informs university policy and offers students a chance to voice their opinions and frustrations with the friction that arises from differences of race, sexuality, religion and gender.

Chief Diversity Officer and Climate Week organizer Kim Bobby stated, “The goal is to capture the current narratives of students, faculty and staff around the climate for social diversity and use that information to inform new ways of being purposeful about creating an inclusive community.”

“Current narrative” was the overarching theme of the week’s deeply personal performances. Last Tuesday saw the “Hearing Our Stories” presentation, which featured excerpts from “Go! Be a Superhero,” the work of visiting assistant professor and author Renee Simms, and playwright C. Rosalind Bell’s “1620 Bank Street.”

The two plays boast a duality of scope: on the one hand, they are highly personal tales of family, isolation and the coming of age, while on the other they are ambitious challenges to the general undercurrents of racism and stereotype that ostracize their characters.

The two plays were peppered with the testimonials of Puget Sound students, taken from the 2006 survey and read by students and alumni. The students’ frustrations with campus life (particularly concerning race and racism) were strikingly similar to those of the plays’ protagonists—this symmetry lent the performances thematic potency and the survey itself a definite and poignant relevance.

The testimonials focused on the ignorance and awkwardness that confront students who are excluded from the campus majority by their ethnicity or socioeconomic background. Many students felt that the campus climate discouraged discussion, and that groups like the Black Student Union were too often perceived as militant or exclusive, an image contrary to their mission of building community and encouraging much-needed conversation.

“I think our most pressing issue is fear and discomfort with being in dialogue about difference,” Bobby argues. “I would like us to acknowledge the discomfort and allow ourselves to forge ahead anyway.”

If the dialogue of difference is of the highest importance to students, the issue of race is the most vital facet of that dialogue, given that less-represented ethnicities are so heavily outnumbered at Puget Sound. The university reports that the demographic profile of the class of 2015 is 76.4 percent White, 7.6 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 6.6 percent Hispanic and 2.7 percent African American.

Moreover, the conversation should take place on all levels of the campus community, not only among the students.

“One of the most notable [results of the 2006 survey] was the consistency in some of the narratives about feeling marginalized and isolated by some members of our community,“ Bobby stated. “That includes students, faculty and staff.“

The survey’s themes were expanded upon further by last Thursday’s performance of Julia Cho’s “BFE,” a play that tackles issues of sexuality and self-image as influenced and injured by race-based standards of beauty. The performance was direct and pretension-free, delivering it message with both force and humility.

As last week’s performances proved, conversations about exclusion are difficult to start, containing as they do some inherent admonition of iniquity. The performances sought to prove that this iniquity is real and present—they’ve done the difficult work of broaching the subject, and now the students are asked to join the conversation.

The survey is online from Feb. 13th to 24th and should take 10 minutes to complete.