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  • Emma Radel

Editorial: ‘Canisius Conversations’ is exactly what our school needs

Fatima Rodriguez Johnson is the associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Canisius and a member of the Bias Resource and Response Team. (via Emma Radel)

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of about 30 faculty, staff and students met in Grupp Fireside Lounge for Canisius’s first round of “Canisius Conversations,” a dialogue program hosted by the Bias Resource and Response Team (BRRT).

Headed by Associate Dean for Diversity & Inclusion Fatima Rodriguez Johnson, who is also a member of BRRT, the event signals a revitalization of similar dialogue programs that Canisius has held in the past. As with everything else, though, the pandemic put all of this on hold and Rodriguez Johnson expressed her excitement for the return of experiences like these.

“As we return to face-to-face engagement, it is important to cultivate opportunities for belonging,” she said. Of the event itself, Rodriguez Johnson highlighted BRRT’s intention to promote education and positive social change campuswide: “Canisius Conversations provides a focus on inclusion and offers a consistent structure for proactive engagement on topics of social justice.”

The event took place over the course of an hour. A few people shared their reasons for attending, including faculty who expressed a desire to better connect with students and many other attendees who were interested in hearing other people’s perspectives, having concerns validated and learning something new. It began with an introductory prayer from Dr. Erin Robinson and an icebreaker, led by Kieran Sommer. Then, Dr. Anita Butera provided the background for the conversation’s theme, “Do You Know Your Neighbor?” along with some of her own personal experiences as a migrant to America from Italy. Robinson returned to lead the group through a reflection, which involved a meditative technique.

She asked the audience to focus on the memory of just one interaction they had that day: a conversation with a friend, an introduction to someone new or maybe an interaction with a co-worker. She then asked us to consider the community that we operate within and to consider how these interactions with our “neighbors” function inside of that community.

“Neighbors” in this context are defined in a broad sense: it’s less about people who live next door to you and more about the people you see regularly, those you pass in the hallways or the casual acquaintances in your classes. They can also be your advisors or professors; essentially, neighbors are just people in the community (in this case, the Canisius community). One of the purposes of the event was to ask attendees to reflect on how all the different kinds of relationships we form in our communities affect our roles and levels of comfort within it.

As Robinson led us through the reflection, I thought of one particular interaction I’d had earlier in the day. I recently had a professor request that I make a poster for an event for him, a process I’ve gotten comfortable with throughout the semester through my work with the Spanish department. I spent an hour fiddling with color mixers and adjusting the placement of every little thing until it was arranged just so: I shipped it off through the magical world of email and promptly forgot about it.

The next day, upon entering the class still heaving from my trip up four flights of stairs (seriously, Old Main stairs never get easier), my professor presented me with a Barnes & Noble bag. “As a ‘thank you’ for the beautiful poster you made,” he offered as an explanation.

Inside were two books on copy editing, including Mary Norris’s “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.” Anyone who knows me knows how much I absolutely love grammar and copy editing — at this point you’re checking my byline and, yes, discovering that it is I who murders Oxford commas around these parts.

Sitting in Grupp with a big smile on my face, I felt my chest flood with gratitude. There’s a lot of talk about Canisius’s small population and the opportunities to connect with professors and faculty, and I know we tend to beat it to death, but recently I have been reflecting on all of the connections I’ve managed to make with incredible faculty from all different spheres of campus. I am consistently blown away by how involved professors and advisors are in my education and growth: it’s one thing to get someone a thank-you present and another to give them two books that fit their precise niche, you know?

After the reflection concluded, our four groups got started on small-group discussion for the next 30 minutes. In my group of six, we covered a variety of topics — how to define terms like neighbor and community and how we define our relationships with other people, for example. We also talked about being present in our interactions with others and the necessity of feeling secure in yourself and your identity in order to be able to forge meaningful relationships. I was the only undergrad in my group, but I did not feel uncomfortable about it for a minute; on the contrary, I was stoked to hear perspectives from professors, advisors and from Sommer, a graduate assistant.

These 30 minutes of sincere, meaningful conversation gave us the opportunity to sit down and reflect on the Canisius community as a whole. What opportunities does going to a small school offer for faculty-student or even student-student connections? What does it mean that the Canisius campus is geographically situated in the middle of a neighborhood? What does all of this do for our campus community that is unique to Canisius?

At the end of our small-table discussions, the group reconvened to offer closing thoughts. I found myself wishing I could somehow have been a part of all of the groups at once: one group reported a productive conversation on race and ethnicity and their effect on how we approach our neighbors, and I found myself amazed at how human beings in the same space could talk about so many different and important topics at once. I left the event feeling recentered in the Canisius community at large, and I had a whole host of new ideas to contemplate. Principal among them is this: where in my daily, casual interactions can I convey feelings of generosity, openness and connection?

Rodriguez Johnson said she was encouraged by how many people attended and expressed a deep interest in Canisius’s community. She also expressed a desire for more student participation at the events: “We really want this to be a space for everyone.”

“Canisius Conversations” is exactly what our school needs, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to everyone involved (especially the BRRT) for setting it up and creating such a safe and productive space to have conversations like this. Rodriguez Johnson’s energy lit the room on fire, Sommer got everyone up on their feet and helped expel any awkwardness with his fun icebreaker questions, Butera gave our groups a beautiful and vulnerable look into her multicultural life and Robinson centered us in the moment to put us in the right mindset to start talking.

I look forward to the next iteration of this event, which Rodriguez Johnson assured me will be held in the future. “We plan to host a ‘conversation’ each semester and would appreciate suggestions on topics for the discussion from members of the campus community,” she concluded. If you’re looking for a chance to learn from a group of seasoned peers in a comfortable setting, or you feel you have something to contribute to the conversation, keep an eye out for the next event. I’ve already been refreshing my email waiting to hear what’s up next.

We’re a small school. Let’s start taking advantage of that — let’s go out and meet our neighbors.

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