The University Record, February 11, 2002

Graduate student conference works to bridge divides

By Elizabeth Manasse
Record intern

The Students of Color of Rackham held the Graduate Students of Color Conference last week. The theme of the conference was breaking down the various ways in which people are divided in the academic world, the workplace and in daily life.

The conference, “Dismantling the Divide: Students of Color Constructing a New Praxis,” invited students of color to create new practices through research, scholarship, performance and art, where they challenge the digital divide and the achievement gap, and seek convergence of ‘Divides.’

“The ‘Divide’ symbolizes those things that socially separate us, including race, class, nation, gender and sexual orientation.” says Odis Johnson, conference coordinator. “As students of color, we acknowledge our disparate existence and challenge those thoughts.” The ‘Divide’ refers to how students of color are divided in their academic lives by the disciplines they study. For instance, students addressed the division between disciplines in “hard” sciences and social sciences. According to Johnson, the goal of the conference was to build coalitions across racial groups and to share experiences. “We wanted people to leave with a greater sense of the role of their work in the academy and in society,” says Johnson.

Cecilia Muņoz, one of the three featured speakers, says the conference helped people identify and tackle issues that divide people of color. Muņoz, a U-M alumna, is vice president for the Office of Research, Advocacy and Legislation of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). She supervises all legislative and advocacy activities conducted by NCLR, covering a variety of issues of importance to Latinos, including civil rights, employment, poverty, farmworker issues, education, housing and immigration. Muņoz is interested in how demographic changes in the U.S. may increase the number of groups working together across racial and ethnic lines. According to Muņoz, results of the 2000 U.S. Census revealed that the Latino community is the largest minority group in the country. NCLR received numerous calls from journalists about the new trend. “Journalists framed their questions in conflict terms,” says Muņoz. “People assumed a conflict would arise with demographic change in the U.S.” However, Muņoz sees evidence that people of various race and ethnicities are working together to accomplish common goals.

Muņoz cites the example of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. The campaign, which addresses economic empowerment issues, achieved success last year when a tax bill was passed giving $10 billion to low income families. The campaign efforts helped 17 million children, and ultimately put 500,000 children above the poverty line.

Muņoz feels that U-M has gone a long way to achieve diversity since she was a student. When she graduated in 1984, there were only 20 Latinos in the incoming freshman class. “It’s very meaningful for me to be back at the University in this capacity,” Muņoz says. “It’s an important time to be asking questions about diversity, and an important time for people to be working together.” She hopes the conference inspired more dialogue about diversity.

This year’s conference was the largest ever, with 60 presenters from more than 30 universities. Graduate students from all disciplines, including social sciences, humanities, education, public heath and fine arts presented their research.

Staff from the University’s Career Planning and Placement, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgen-dered Affairs, and University faculty lead interactive workshops. Johnson says the large number of universities involved in the event suggest that this is the foremost conference for students of color in the U.S.