The Center for Communication, Difference and Equity: Doing Right, Doing Good

“We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right,” once proclaimed Martin Luther King Jr. For many schoolchildren, King is the embodiment of fairness, a modern hero who championed justice and worked tirelessly to bring the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to those most marginalized by society.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and all those who continue to fight for civil liberties and human rights, the Center for Communication Difference and Equity (CCDE) has endeavored for the past two years “to identify, create, and disseminate communication practices that embrace our differences—across races, genders, sexualities, incomes, abilities, and more—as individual and community strengths.”

Founding members of the CCDE initially envisioned a physical space where University of Washington students, faculty, alumni, and community partners could convene and hold discussions on race, discrimination, privilege, and other similar topics. Now in its second year, the CCDE has expanded its role. The employment of full time staff and the development of communication programs have moved the Center closer towards its ultimate goal of teaching individuals to “build a more equitable world, in which our words, imagery, and attention are infused with understanding, respect, fairness, and justice.”

“We realized early on that there are many groups on campus working on these issues,” said N. Gina Aaftaab, Assistant Director of the CCDE, “but we found these efforts were very siloed. The Center is a place where people come together and make connections. However, discussion is not enough to affect institutional change; you have to link together all the parts through long term programming.”

According to Aaftaab, three core pillars guide the CCDE’s operations: research, supporting and enriching marginalized students’ education, and a dedication to serving University and partner communities.

In keeping with the University of Washington’s reputation for excellence, the CCDE’s first focus is on conducting and promoting equity-centered research. With support from the community, the Center plans to invite speakers, including UW scholars from various departments, to hold public workshops so that all may better understand social justice issues. Through these interactive sessions, the CCDE hopes to inspire attendees to plans of action and larger community engagement.

As part of the University of Washington’s Race and Equity initiative, the Alumni Association collaborated with the CCDE to host an alumni-student seminar series on Interrupting Privilege. Led by Dr. Ralina Joseph, Founding Director of the CCDE, the series is a unique opportunity for alumni and current students to explore race and equity issues through intergenerational discussions and lectures. “Regardless of whether the students and the alumni might be starting in different places, they can all lead and grow together to ultimately create change,” explained Dr. Joseph. The University and the CCDE created the series in response to a request from alumni for more contact with students. “We’ve been successful in creating a space for these two groups of people to connect and share ideas. At each session, we’ve had twenty students and twenty alumni participating,” Aaftaab reported.  Participants even had the opportunity to produce an accompanying blog, sharing additional insights outside of their initial conversations with each other.

To further its goal of a long-term research initiative on marginalized communities’ wellbeing, the CCDE plans to convene additional research working groups to foster collaborations with faculty and graduate students from across the University. Focusing on effective communication, the Center would encourage group members to discuss projects with others, prepare academic work for presentation at upcoming conferences, and provide additional mentoring services to emerging scholars. “While academic work can sometimes be a solitary pursuit,” states the website for the Communication and Difference Research Group (CDRG), “we believe that building a supportive and generative environment for emerging and seasoned scholars to share, develop, and celebrate their scholarship opens new possibilities and critically engages difference at the institutional level.”

In addition to research, the CCDE works with student run organizations to ensure that all Huskies have opportunities for growth as “leaders who value, understand, communicate, and embrace difference, and who fight for equity.” From special events like Spoken-Word festivals, to the purposeful mentoring that takes place in their summer Engaged Scholars class, and to weekly “safe lunches” where students of all backgrounds can meet and share their concerns about social injustice, the Center strives to be a place of support that reflects the University’s commitment to serving its diverse student population.

“We want to combat the idea that these issues are ‘somebody else’s problem,’” explained Aaftaab, “the truth is that the challenges faced daily by marginalized groups impact all of us. The CCDE strives to encourage students to carry their critical thinking and analysis of social justice beyond university life. We want to give them the tools for knowledge production that will enable them to show others that these issues are not merely a negative side effect or result of bad policies, but that they are inherited, historical practices that need to change at an institutional level.”

Students engaged with the CCDE often promote this philosophy while participating in a variety of campus-wide activities. For example, during this year’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. (#UWMLKWEEK), the CCDE worked alongside the Q Center, the Carlson Center, and the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center to present a slate of engaging programming. Students had the opportunity to explore a Black History 101 Mobile Museum, attend a “We Stand Together” Teach-In on race, join a communal poem by Natasha Marin, or hear from two community leaders: King County Councilmember Larry Gossett and civil rights activist, Kathleen Cleaver.

At Marin’s workshop, students had the rare opportunity to participate in an original poem, “Red Lineage.” The Seattle Office of Arts & Culture described the interactive poetry framework as “accessible, yet challenging; simple, but telling. It creates different ways to describe oneself, by exploring our relationships to family through metaphor.” Furthermore, Marin said, the collaborative and political act of creating the poem fosters “a sense of community despite real and/or perceived social and demographic barriers. Within the Red Lineage, everyone is red—a metaphor that invokes the idea of the bloodline.”

The CCDE also enriches the experience of minority students at the University of Washington through the Engaged Scholarship summer research program, supported in part by funds from the Flip Wilson Scholarship. Taejonae Tean McKenzie, the Department’s current Flip Wilson scholar, said that although there were moments when she doubted her self-worth, “I have found that there are people around me who see my potential, who are willing to invest in me and believe in me. Being awarded the Flip Wilson scholarship has reminded me of that.” McKenzie also said that she believes challenging years “like now, where our world is constantly filled with negativity (especially for black and brown bodies) is the perfect time to follow the paths of legends like Mr. Wilson.” McKenzie’s ultimate aspiration upon graduating from the Department of Communication is to have her own talk show, where she wants to “educate, inspire and add love to people’s lives.”

Beyond serving an array of University communities, the CCDE also has found success working to address equity issues on a larger scale in Seattle. Prior to founding the Center, Dr. Joseph and her students worked with the Smilow Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club & Teen Center, providing mentorship services and academic placement assistance to high school students. That partnership continues through the CCDE, which provides summer classes and winter programming to the Club. Graduate and undergraduate students have taught courses on sexual health, teen safety, and a “date smart” curriculum for adolescent girls. “One of the great things about this collaboration, beyond the obvious benefits to the students who gain knowledge to which they previously might not have had access,” insisted Aaftaab, “is that our scholars can bring the lessons they learn from these interactions to bear on their research in areas like public health, education, city planning, and more.”

At the end of the next five years, the CCDE’s goal is to help the University of Washington truly “Be a World of Good” for students and the larger community. The Center hopes ultimately to move discussions of equity issues beyond the classroom and more into the public eye. “In the end, we want every student, staff, faculty, alumni, and community partner to have access to this knowledge,” Aaftaab stated. “We also want University leadership to recognize that general education, as well as specialized curriculum, needs to be a complete reflection of what is currently facing society. All students, and not only those pursuing minority studies, need to have access to these resources and the opportunity to learn more from each other. We all can be more productive in creating ‘a World of Good.’”