Kennedy School Students Call for Training To Combat Privilege in Classroom

UPDATED: April 5, 2014, at 2:09 a.m.

Students at the Kennedy School of Government gathered in the school’s courtyard on Friday for a “moment of solidarity” in support of a movement lobbying the school’s administration to create a mandatory orientation program to help incoming students and faculty better recognize and address race and gender in the classroom.

The movement, called HKS Speaks Out, began in October after students expressed having “really negative classroom experiences,” according to Reetu D. Mody, a first year Master in Public Policy student and an organizer of the movement. She said the group has amassed about 300 student signatures, or about a fourth of the school’s student population, on a petition that calls for mandatory privilege and power training.

At Friday’s event, about 80 students participated in an exercise to visualize the differences in privilege created by race and gender. The students began in a single line, but as students were asked to step forward or backward based on questions about the social repercussions of their socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and sexual identities, the line became disjointed.

Mody said that she felt the event brought the students together to share their varying backgrounds and, in doing so, demonstrated the need for greater training on the issue.

In response to the movement, the school’s diversity committee met with the group’s organizers to hear their concerns, Kennedy School spokesman Doug Gavel wrote in an email, adding that these discussions “have been extremely productive and constructive.”

Additionally, Melodie Jackson, senior associate dean for degree programs and student affairs, “has committed to integrating diversity training into student orientation and the school is currently exploring a variety of different training options,” Gavel wrote.

Mody organized “speak out” sessions last fall after being disappointed by classes that “didn’t really address race at all” when considering systemic policy issues. The sessions allowed Mody's fellow classmates to discuss their frustrations freely; the first session drew about 80 of her peers, she said.

At the sessions, many students expressed that the power dynamics in the classroom hurt their experience and limited their education, according to Mody.

“To have these discussions where we are not being challenged is very detrimental to our ability to be thoughtful policy makers,” Mody said. “Coming here and not getting an education to support that has been really difficult.”

Out of these community conversations, the group decided that students and faculty needed to have a better understanding of “race, gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, ability, religion, international status, and power differentials,” prior to entering classroom discussions, according to the movement’s open letter to the Kennedy School community.

“You can either go to a diversity talk, or you can go play soccer–that was our orientation.” Mody said, of last year’s orientation.

For Michelle A. Millar, a first year student at the Kennedy School, the status quo limits the amount of unique voices in the classroom.

“We just can’t learn when we are only hearing from one side,” Millar said. “It’s hard to get that perspective if our professors aren’t trained to…make [classrooms] a safe place.”

—Staff writer Tyler S. Olkowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @OlkowskiTyler.


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