Residence life has a unique opportunity on any campus’s quest for multiculturalism and understanding human differences. For many, it might be considered a responsibility. The residence hall communities can serve as breeding grounds to foster multicultural exploration. Imagine if everyone on any given residence hall floor could really hear and understand what makes each other unique as well as similar. Imagine the potential for students to engage in the learning process with the folks living right next door or down the hall from them. Imagination can become reality using a simple tool that everyone has: language.
As resident assistants (RAs), you are in a privileged position to facilitate the imagining of this reality. You get to experience the storytelling your residents informally engage in everyday. The challenge set before you asks how can you promote pluralism in your programming and community development. A natural connection exists between these stories and this challenge.
The Oral Tradition of Community Development
The stories your residents share when trying to get to know each other at the beginning of the year, or when a new person moves onto the floor, or the stories that are shared later in the year can be identified as current and modern extensions of the aged old method of chronicling history: the oral tradition. The oral tradition has served the residence hall community informally since the time that residence halls began. One of the best methods for RAs to get to know their residents has always been conversation. Initiating conversations to learn more about each other provides millions of RAs with countless opportunities to connect residents to resources. It is something that you already do, and you do it quite well!
The Pluralistic Programming Approach
If you are looking for ways to promote pluralistic values in your residence hall communities, stop looking! Seeing is not always believing and our eyes will deceive us. You need to start listening. And really hear what your residents contribute to your community.
By accumulating the stories your residents have to share, as well as the stories your fellow student staff members relate to you during orientation and on-the-job training, you develop a wealth of information eager to be dissected with the insights of brilliant young minds, like the minds of you and your residents. Bringing these stories together in a formal setting such as a program on the floor or a presentation in the campus drama lab can help other residents relate to the trials, tribulations and triumphs of their peers. It can also challenge folks to examine when, where and how they have contributed to those trials, tribulations and triumphs.
This picture can look like an intimate gathering in the lounge where an “open-mike” set-up takes place, or it can be more structured, like a performance in front of an audience of peers with lights, costumes and set furniture. The key is finding the right venue for the stories that your community needs to tell and hear.
Sharing personal stories in a public forum intimidates some people. The support provided by the organizers and facilitators of these programs determines how comfortable individuals feel expressing themselves, which is why participants must understand what to expect before any presentation. This can often be accomplished in workshops where each presenter works through their story with a cohort of presenters. During this time, students can learn what it is about their story that really makes an impact on others. Workshops also give the chance to figure out how much to share and what to emphasize in the story. The camaraderie that develops between individuals who are brave enough to participate in these programs can grow strong, and if that happens with residents of your own community, then you can witness a group’s leadership development happening first-hand.
The fact that it takes bravery to share a personal story testifies to the sensitivity needed in pluralistic programming. Anytime multiple voices are share diverse perspectives, controversy has the potential to erupt. This should not frighten anyone from participating. In fact, it should entice people. Only when someone challenges an idea does it become worthy of exploring and defending. Stacy Ann Chin, a famous slam poetry artist once said, “When someone else makes me question one of my own tenants, that is where the conversation begins.”
In order to prepare students for what can be an intense experience, it is important to emphasize that this activity is not an acting exercise. Acting is something that very few people can do well, but many people try. Sharing is something that everyone can do well, but very few people ever really try. Accessing the oral tradition of the residence halls and translating it into a dynamic and dramatic presentation to help foster multiculturalism in your community is an experience that can be open to all of your residents, including yourself.
Opportunities to Access the Oral Tradition and Implement Pluralistic Programming
As leaders and facilitators of the learning experience within the residence halls, you have resources abundantly available to you. Aside from the diverse voices on your floor, you have multiple forums to create meaningful exchanges of people’s experiences. Reserving time in a weekly floor or hall meeting for residents to share a “monologue” they have prepared with your help, or bringing your residents to a lecture hall one evening to hear a cohort of their neighbors perform their real life stories are just two possibilities to consider. You may initially approach a few residents that you already know fairly well, or reach out to those periphery residents that have escaped your wealth of resource.
The beginning of the year provides time during training and orientation when students are eager to learn about their new surroundings, including the people that live near and around them. The end of the semester also provides a unique opportunity for reflection upon the previous term when students might share experiences that have affected them in the last few months. The point is that sharing can happen at any time. It is the context and the purpose that determines its meaning.
The power of language can hit like a hammer. It is a tool accessible to anyone. The potential exists for you to initiate new traditions while carrying on old ones by utilizing the oral tradition of the residence halls. Multiculturalism depends upon the sharing and appreciation of human differences and similarities. By promoting pluralism in community development initiatives, you can help make a difference in how people understand the world around them and how they interact within it. As an RA, you have the power to harness the language in your residence hall and make a difference in your community!
Submitted by Ryan Gildersleeve, Hall Director, Iowa State University