Shortly after last November’s election, when racially charged incidents and hate speech spiked across college campuses, Yavapai College President Penelope Wills met with faculty and staff, hoping to find ways the central Arizona community college could get in front of the problem.
“In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer said our democracy is definitely broken,” Wills says. “But is it broken apart – where we turn on one another? Or is it broken open, where you can examine and discuss possibility? I wanted an approach that asked, ‘How can we fix this?’”
YC Sociology Professor Mark Shelley agrees. “We could’ve dropped the hammer and just said, ‘hate speech won’t be tolerated!’ But that hard-line approach just seems to invite retribution, and escalation.”
So the team created the Respect YC Campaign: a multi-ethnic, interdisciplinary approach that drew upon the passions of campaign organizers and challenged YC’s students to give it a voice. Engaging student enthusiasm was the key to success.
“You can’t just talk to them,” Shelley says. “You have to get them to do the talking.” To that end, the college sponsored essay, visual art and YouTube contests – challenging its own students to make the case for diversity. They made eloquent arguments in oils, prints, sculptures and collage. The art winner, Table of Diversity, is a turned-wood entry from student-artist John Stewart. It blended twelve contrasting woods, symbolizing the different races “cupped together as if in the hands of the Great Creator.”
Contest winners received three free credit hours, and their entries were displayed at the library, the student diner, and posted online. “We got support from every level, from the administration, to the faculty to the student groups,” Shelley says. “That allowed us to address the issue in a variety of ways.”
Respect YC also sponsored events. Author, psychology professor and communications expert Rupert Nacoste visited campus to lead discussions on conducting civil discourse across issues of race, religion and politics. They screened the Broadway musical Allegiance – based on actor George Takei’s experience in a Japanese internment camp – to promote diversity awareness.
“It got contagious,” Wills says, as other campus groups, like the anti-bullying initiative and the student-run Chalk for Change, embraced Respect YC and began carrying its message. “Tolerance was an issue that people wanted to address.”
As a result, “tolerance” and “diversity” are no longer just buzzwords at Yavapai College. They are concepts examined within its classrooms. “In class, we have discussions about Charlottesville, the NFL and the national anthem,” Shelley says. “One of my students said, ‘These things are hard to talk about.’ But it’s easier to talk about if the conversation is already going around you.”
The conversation will continue at Yavapai College, Wills says. With support from above, creative expression and student voices at the core. “It makes me feel proud of our students,” she says, “and better about the world.”