Diversity in Departments: Communication studies connects with community

by Nathanael King / Beacon Staff • February 24, 2016

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Gregory Payne, communication studies chair.
Ted Keffer / Beacon Archives
Gregory Payne, communication studies chair.
Ted Keffer / Beacon Archives

Emerson says it’s working toward creating a more inclusive environment, and each department has set goals to improve their curricula. Each week, the Beacon will feature the plans for an academic department. Previous installments include writing, literature, and publishing, visual and media arts, journalism, and marketing communication.

The communication studies department seeks to improve diversity through immersion by partnering with a local outreach program for students from low-income communities, Bird Street Community Center.

Gregory Payne, associate professor and department chair, co-directs the Emerson Bird Street Exchange Civic Engagement Program. The community center is a nonprofit program for students from low-income areas. He said the exchange brings middle schoolers and high schoolers from Bird Street to the college on a weekly basis for classes led by Emerson students.

Josiah Seet, a freshman political communication major, is involved in the program. He said he teaches Bird Street students the basic versions of skills taught at Emerson, like social media, communication skills, and music. This semester, the program is planning a talent show. Seet said he’s making a documentary film about this project.

“I think as a department, we’re pretty good about being diverse and actually making practical change out there,” Seet said. “But, I think that a lot of these programs that get proposed don’t really get the funding required to really do something.”

Randy Boston, an 18-year-old Bird Street student, said he created an anti-bullying public service announcement through the exchange program. He said he was involved with the group for several years, and that it had helped him to stay out of trouble.

“It’s crazy to see how much my life has changed since the beginning,” he said.

Payne said one of the ways he tries to improve the student body’s diversity is attempting to eventually bring Bird Street students in to attend Emerson as undergraduates. He said he was working on a way to develop financial aid to remove the economic barriers to those attending the college.

“We have a very strong commitment to diversity,” Payne said.

Boston said he was interested in studying political communication at Emerson.

“I’m trying to become president, so Emerson would be a good place to start,” he said.

Alexandria Martinez, a sophomore political communication major and student of color, said the department should train faculty to conduct productive discussions on issues of racial inequality, and to adequately address problematic statements from her peers.

She said she thinks the faculty in the department lacks racial diversity. Martinez said that all her professors so far have been white, and that some have not been facilitating these conversations well.

“It’s sometimes frustrating to see white professors talk about race relations,” she said.

Martinez said one of her professors allowed a student to make comments she found offensive in class about the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. She said last year’s student walkouts were a good way to start a serious conversation on race.

“Professors and students need to be held more accountable for their actions and the things they say,” Martinez said.

Linda Gallant, associate professor in the communication studies department and graduate program director, said concerns about cultural competency took a high priority in faculty meetings. She said it was important to talk about these topics even in courses not explicitly about inclusivity.

According to Payne, the department is starting an initiative in March called Comm Studies Cooks, in which each month a member of the department cooks a meal from their culture for students, faculty, and staff in attendance. It’s meant to prompt and provide specific time for discussion on diversity.

He said the department faculty was also going to take the Intercultural Development Inventory, an assessment of cultural competency. The IDI is a questionnaire which is evaluated by an independent agency, which creates an individual profile and plans to improve the cultural competency of the person taking the questionnaire.

“We’re the oldest department at the college,” Payne said. “The one thing we’ve done from the very beginning and continue to do is tell stories, and what we hope is we’re telling stories that are ethical, inclusive, respectful, and that we imbue within each of our students that you’re responsible for what you put out there.”