The Fall 2021 event attracted close to 3,000 people, including members of the Merrimack College community, alumni, high school students, community leaders from the Merrimack Valley as well as international participants from such places as Armenia, the Philippines and Pakistan.
“Unity in Diversity is one of Merrimack’s younger traditions. However, these dedicated days of education and reflection already hold significant weight in our community,” said President Christopher E. Hopey, Ph.D. “Merrimack strives to be a second home for all our students as well as a safe and welcoming work environment for our faculty and staff members. Unity in Diversity allows us all to learn and grow together.”
An important pillar of Merrimack’s presidential initiative on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Unity in Diversity was first launched in Fall 2020 in response to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as systemic inequities and social divides amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program has since offered two days of virtual programming each semester which is free, available to the entire Merrimack community and open to the public. These dedicated days reflect an intentional effort to center the voices of scholars, artists and organizers from historically underrepresented communities. Guests this semester spoke on a wide range of topics, from the housing crisis to climate justice and the culture wars.
“Unity in Diversity is about coming together as a community to leverage the privileges we have as individuals attending and working at an academic institution,” said Simona Sharoni, vice president for inclusive excellence, institutional access & leadership. “By holding these days every semester, the college underscores its commitment to institutionalizing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion through both education and calls to action.”
Highlights from this year’s programming included an insightful presentation by scholar and public intellectual, Dr. Lorreta Ross, associate professor at Smith College. Ross shared the lessons she learned as a lifelong activist on global human rights and social justice issues and how her journey led her to conceptualizing and writing her forthcoming book Calling In the Calling Out Culture (Simon & Schuster, 2022).
In another workshop, “Unpacking Privilege on a Private College Campus,” Dr. Adam Howard from Colby College and Pat Stewart from the Millbrook School reflected on their research collaboration when Stewart was an undergraduate student at Colby. They discussed navigating the many layers of privilege, understanding one’s own positionality and finding ways to better relate and communicate with one another, specifically on college campuses where so many backgrounds and experiences come together as one community.
Unity in Diversity also exposes students to DEI work by centering the identities and experiences of people from historically underrepresented groups, and featuring scholars and artists who represent multiple identities and experiences.
Dr. Janell Hobson, professor and chair of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany shared excerpts from her recently published book When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination (Routledge, 2021). In this book, Hobson demonstrates the importance of centering black women’s experience by using examples of pop culture and historical figures from Beyoncé to Harriet Tubman.
Dr. Ashon Crawley provided another creative example of blending scholarship with creative writing and performance. A teacher, writer, and audiovisual artist, Crawley read excerpts from his recent book The Lonely Letters (Duke University Press, 2020), and reflected on his attempts to honor blackqueer life and spirituality.
In a session entitled “Global Youth Voices on Climate Justice,” 19-year-old Kaleena Roeva from Climate Cardinals and 21-year-old Jon Bonifacio from Climate Action Philippines shared their knowledge, passion and sense of urgency regarding climate justice. Both provided insight to the ways climate change disproportionately impacts global marginalized communities and shared resources designed to encourage others to join the movement.
In a similar vein, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who burst onto the national stage as a result of the water contamination crisis in Flint, MI, delivered a talk entitled “What the Eyes Don’t See: Confronting and Environmental Disaster.” Hannah-Attisha – who has testified before Congress on behalf of this issue – engaged in a lively conversation with Dr. April Bowling, assistant professor of health sciences and director of the THRIVE lab.
Advocates working with community organizations in the Merrimack Valley added a local and regional dimension to these conversations. Two sessions in particular featured the work of local community organizations focusing on issues such as the housing crisis, food insecurity and immigration, all of which have become more acute as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The local organizations represented included:
Finally, Unity in Diversity also featured poetry, spoken word, music and art as well as critical engagement with popular culture. Artists like Rosebud Ben-Oni, George Abraham and torrin greathouse welcomed audiences into the intimacy of their experience by sharing their poetry on navigating queer and trans identities, their ethnic and immigrant origins as well as disability and poverty.
In sum, the two days exposed the Merrimack College community and others who attended to key current and historical issues, all of them addressed by a diverse group of speakers. In the months ahead, the College will continue to provide education and training and gather input from the community in preparation for Spring 2022 Unity in Diversity Days.