On Sept. 26, an unusually muggy fall day, the Franklin & Marshall College community took a break from the typical grind of midterm exams and lectures to speak, listen, share, create, celebrate, learn, grow and transform. That may seem like a tall order for a single day, but the main purpose of F&M’s second Day of Dialogue was to ask everyone on campus to pause, come together and strengthen the community.
The event began as keynote speaker, actress and playwright Nilaja Sun Gordon '96 recounted how offended and hurt she felt by a student’s comment to her on her first day on campus in August 1992. The female student watched Sun, “a half African American, half Puerto Rican girl,” emerge from the bathroom just before bedtime wearing a favorite red scarf, and said, “‘Oh my God! You look just like Aunt Jemima!’ [It] was the last thing I ever expected to hear on my first day at F&M.”
Sun told the Mayser Gym audience that the experience made her reconsider who she was, but in the process, she realized that others like herself struggle with life. “When you meet a cold-hearted person, try to do your best and not to take it personal. It literally has nothing to do with you,” Sun said.
The remainder of the day was filled with nearly 40 sessions, including student-, staff- and faculty-led discussions on a range of topics from gun rights to the LGBTQ+ experience to faculty/staff relations. Each session aimed to challenge the members of the F&M community to recognize their diversity, commonalities and relationships with one another.
The Sept. 27 Common Hour, a community discussion conducted each Thursday classes are in session, followed as the emotional culmination of the event. Visiting Scholar of Africana Studies Amanda Kemp, racial justice and mindfulness mentor at F&M, brought the prior day’s experience to a powerful end.
Kemp’s husband, Senior Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Michael Jamanis, was the first to take the stage, wielding his violin. Jamanis played, and the sounds that emanated created an air of trepidation. When Kemp took the stage shortly after, it became clear that the music was setting the tone for the story that she was about to tell in her spoken word performance, “Walking While Black.”
“I see a family of three or four kids and two adults playing while they wait for the school bus,” she began, recalling a morning walk in a friend’s predominantly white neighborhood. “Immediately, I feel weird. I feel like a threat. I am black, dark brown. I have dreadlocks.” Kemp sped through an inner dialogue while the violin raced behind her. She detailed thoughts that may have conjured images and feelings that audience members had never contemplated before.
Once her performance concluded, she thanked the audience for inviting her to speak, and asked them to share how the piece made them feel. After a member of the professional staff introduced himself and shared his experience, Kemp remarked, “Now I know what you look like!” The aside was met with laughter, but hit on a theme that ran through many sessions the previous day, which Kemp sought to address during her time on stage: How do we break down barriers, both literal and figurative, in order to create more connections and inclusivity?
She presented three suggestions for greater inclusiveness. First, cultivate a vision of inclusion and “get good at articulating what it is you want to see in addition to what you don’t want.” Kemp explored how to achieve this through another performance with Jamanis, demonstrating through sound and movement what she called “power sharing.” The duo soloed and duetted, emphasizing Kemp’s belief that “sharing power allows you to build relationship[s].”
Her second suggestion was to practice self-care, explaining that those on the front end of changemaking often “take a beating.” She suggested a practice that she uses, and then took a few minutes to guide the audience through it.
Kemp’s final suggestion was for everyone to check their own implicit racial bias regularly, “kind of like you might brush your teeth,” she said. “Hopefully you do it every day.”
A student asked Kemp how to tackle fear of saying the wrong thing when seeking to learn about another person. Kemp said to ask permission, and to give each other the freedom to say the wrong thing.
“The more you talk about it, the more you get outside your head and come from a place of wanting to know, the more you can do it,” Kemp said. “Practice, practice, practice.”