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Destler Dodge

For many on November 8, 2016, the world became a darker place. In a historic upset, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Trump’s campaign fed off of the xenophobic and racist impulses of this country, like his proposed ban on Muslim immigration or his endorsement of racially biased police practices. While President-elect Trump has yet to begin his term, the effects of his win are already palpable, especially in the college community.

The election results and their subsequent fallout drew a swift reaction from the top levels of higher education. Over 100 college presidents authored a joint letter urging the President-elect to condemn any harassment or violence perpetrated in his name. RIT President Bill Destler wrote and released a widely read letter in response to the post-election atmosphere.

“I want to reassure all that one of RIT’s highest priorities is to demonstrate the extraordinary value of inclusive diversity and that we will continue to respect, appreciate, and benefit from the contributions of all,” said the letter. The letter was largely well received by the community, garnering over 3,000 likes on Facebook. 

“I think it’s pretty bold of Dr. Destler to send out this kind of letter to the community,” said the MOSAIC Center's Multicultural Program Manager Stephanie Paredes. “It only further solidifies that, from a presidential perspective, diversity and inclusion is something that’s valued on campus.”

This sentiment has been echoed by many. But what does creating an inclusive environment look like? And how can we maintain it in the face of these uncertain times?

The Power of Protest

Protests have been the most visible kind of post-election reaction. These protests began in the immediate aftermath of the election and have yet to cease. The vast majority of these protests have been peaceful, although some have involved property destruction and clashes with police. President-elect Trump has denounced the demonstrations as unfair and accused participants of being “professional protesters,” but has also commended protesters for having “passion for our great country.”

Protests and rallies can take many forms in the wake of such a divisive election. One particularly immediate example of this at RIT was the Love and Solidarity Rally, which took place the Monday after the election. Second year Film and Animation student Cynthia Chu, along with a handful of other students, organized the Love and Solidarity Rally the weekend before the event.

“The whole idea was to unite the campus. This was more about love and solidarity for people who feel unsafe after the election,” said Chu. 

Chu spoke of the inclusive atmosphere, mentioning that the event drew in parents with children and people from many backgrounds and age ranges. President Destler and Dr. Rebecca Johnson were also in attendance, in addition to other members of RIT’s administration.

“So many people across the campus came. It wasn’t just students who were doing this,” said Chu.

In contrast to many recent protests, the Love and Solidarity Rally wasn’t explicitly political. 

“The event is not intended to be political in nature at all, but is focused on promoting unity throughout our diverse community,” said the Facebook event description. Where other protests might have included anti-Trump slogans and chants, this protest ended in a group hug.

“It’s an act of self care to go to something like this,” said Chu.

“It’s an act of self care to go to something like this,” said Chu. This isn’t a hyperbolic statement; according to a survey conducted by University of Minnesota psychologist William J. Doherty, 43 percent of responders felt emotional distress from Trump’s presidential campaign. 90 percent of those who felt emotional distress reported feeling worse about this election than any prior. In this tense environment, a positive and inclusive message is desperately needed.

But while the rally wasn’t specifically against the election of President-elect Trump, the underlying political undercurrent was salient. The recent outpouring of support for vulnerable people has largely been a reaction to the recent increase of hate crimes, committed by those emboldened by a Trump victory. The Southern Poverty Law Center has recorded over 700 acts of hateful harassment or intimidation in just the first week after the election. This frightening trend has prompted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to create a special police force to combat hate crimes. These disturbing incidents were not lost on Chu.

“We don’t want love and solidarity covering the fact that there definitely is oppression and discrimination,” said Chu. “We’re not supporting people who oppress others.”

Pins and Allies

But how to confront those who would oppress or discriminate without violence is a question many must reconcile with. One method, popular on social media, has been wearing a safety pin.

Inspired by reactions in the United Kingdom after the controversial and racially charged Brexit, many have taken to wearing safety pins as a message of solidarity with immigrants and people of color. Wearing this pin is meant to visually communicate that vulnerable people can feel safe with the wearer.

Though this socially-minded accessorizing has gained popular traction and media coverage, many question the value of sporting a safety pin in creating a safer environment, even labeling the act as “slacktivism.” This debate reveals a larger, more important question: What does it mean to truly be an ally?

One way to be a better ally to marginalized groups is by becoming an active bystander. Being an active bystander is the simple act of stepping in when one witnesses violence, harassment, or otherwise unacceptable behavior. 

“If I’m on a bus and someone is being harassed, it should not depend on that person to see my safety pin to feel safe with me,” said Academic Support Center Senior Director Cha Ron Sattler-Leblanc. “I want people to see that I’m an ally by my actions.”

Though confrontation can be nerve-wracking or uncomfortable for an active bystander, it is one of the best tools an ally has for helping to create a safe, inclusive space.

“You might not be able to fix the situation, but you can also say, ‘Hey, that makes me feel uncomfortable,’” said Sattler-Leblanc. 

It goes without saying that it’s important to disrupt any discrimination or harassment you see. But it is also important to challenge any harmful or bigoted beliefs you hear from friends and family.

“Some of that might just be at the dinner table ... Saying 'You know, I don’t agree with that,'' said Satter-Leblanc. Communication is key to changing potentially harmful beliefs.

Bridging the Gap

Although creating an inclusive environment requires communication, dialogue seems to be in short supply these days. The post-election landscape has been riddled with bitter political arguments, and the partisan gap hasn’t been this dramatically wide in 25 years. The majority of both Republicans and Democrats have a strongly negative view of the opposing party. 31 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of Republicans even believe the opposing party is a danger to the country.

When voters — and their candidates — believe that the other side of the political spectrum is an existential threat, how can meaningful dialogue be established?

Certainly not over social media, according to Sattler-Leblanc. 

“My first reaction is that Facebook is a horrible vehicle for [discussion] right now,” she said. To the surprise of nobody, social media has proven to be a flawed medium when it comes to discussing politics. According to a Pew poll, 64 percent of people find that they have less in common with the other side of the political spectrum after discussion on social media. 59 percent of people find these interactions stressful and infuriating. These negative feelings are amplified with social media; 84 percent of people agree at least somewhat that people say make political statements on social media that they would never say in person.

It may seem impossible, especially in the wake of this election, to fix the current state of political discourse. But there are steps that anyone can take to help bridge the divide.

“Give yourself permission to wait. There’s no demand for you to respond immediately. As much as it might hook you, wait an hour,” said Sattler-Leblanc. When trying to communicate with those you bitterly disagree with, insults can only turn people off.

“You only know what you've known your whole life. If I’m going to come in and say, 'What you know is wrong,' that’s where the disconnect happens,” said Paredes.

The bigoted rhetoric in this presidential race may seem shocking to many. But considering that a Reuters poll found that 40 percent of white Americans and 25 percent of non-white Americans only associate with people of their own race, the bigotry that pervades our discourse is more understandable.

“Some people just don’t know what they don’t know. People may not have been exposed to different cultures or different kinds of people from different backgrounds,” Paredes said. “If you’ve never been exposed to different cultures, you only know one kind of way of life. I can’t blame you for knowing only one type of way,” she continued.

Perhaps the most important step in healing our inter-political discussions is admitting cultural blind spots. 

“Listen to understand. don’t listen to respond,” said Paredes. “It’s hard to get people to cross the bridge, but it’s not hard to build it.”

“Listen to understand. don’t listen to respond,” said Paredes. “It’s hard to get people to cross the bridge, but it’s not hard to build it.”

Moving Forward

With all of the anger, sadness, disappointment and fear that has seeped into our nation’s consciousness, it can be hard to believe that it has been about a  month since Donald Trump was elected president. Far from the return to normalcy that many of us desired after such a contentious and emotionally taxing election, the future looms with uncertainty and anxiety. It is both comforting and overwhelming that the fate of our country lies in the hands of those willing to act, in ways both big and small.

“You want to make sure your voice is heard. You need to make sure they notice you,” said Chu. Even if you’re not willing to make large sacrifices, you owe it to yourself and your community to foster a more inclusive environment for everyone, regardless of creed, culture or color.

“All of us have identities and different contexts in which we have privilege,” said Sattler-Leblac. “Recognize the power and agency you have and use it for good.”

If you or anyone you know has faced discrimination or harassment, you can confidentially report these incidents at The Student Health Center, The Counseling Center, The Center for Women and Gender, The Ombuds Office, The Center for Religious Life and the NTID Counseling and Academic Services.