It is well known among the student body just how clique-y Bates College can be, whether intentional or not. Many desire the opportunity to branch out, to connect with people outside of their “groups.” Associate vice president and chief diversity officer Crystal Williams hopes to offer just that through Dinner Table.
Based on qualitative senior surveys and her interactions with a broad range of students on campus, Williams found a trend of “dissatisfaction with the institution: [students] wanted to be transformed through our differences, and we were finding that the institution wasn’t formally catalyzing these conversations.” For a full semester, Williams and five other faculty members focused on ways to address these frustrations, thus coming up with Dinner Table.
The goal was to create a program that was “simple and elegant, that pushed into the cultural currency – which is really about community and creativity,” Williams said. The program includes over seventy participating students and twenty-four student facilitators. Before each meal, students are emailed a topic that they must address through a story/narrative over dinner with their groups. Topics are intentionally broad: the first topic of the semester – “Oddball Out” – could lead one person to discuss a moment of isolation and another to bring up baseball.
The program flows over six Sundays in a semester, each clustered together in two-week spans (what Williams calls “pods.”) This past Sunday held the second Dinner Table meeting (the first having been on Sunday, September 20th.) The first Sunday of the “pod” will always involve story telling, while the second asks students to reflect on the stories shared that previous week: what affected them, common themes, what made each story unique, etc. At the end of the semester, after the six sessions, students will nominate stories from their table (which remain consistent throughout the semester) that they believe the most inspiring. Those elected will apply to tell their story, and if approved, work with a storytelling coach who will help prepare them for a public reading in Olin in December.
The process of organizing tables is extremely deliberate as well: Williams and her colleagues composed the tables so that they were both “inclusive and broad – involving students who have always wanted to engage but haven’t been able to – but also making sure that students of color were fairly represented at their table.” There is a strong emphasis on diversity, inclusivity, and discussion. One of the most cognitive goals of the program is “to give students the opportunity to talk civilly about their differences across the board,” Williams said.
So far, Dinner Table truly seems to be breaking down the social barriers enforced by student cliques. “Students have expressed that they deeply value the opportunity to get to know people outside of their friend groups in meaningful ways,” Crystal noted, “and to understand themselves to be cultural beings and come out of contexts, and to understand their context better, but also that of other peoples.” Some students are so excited about the program that they’ve asked if they can extend the program into Commons in order to make it a more inviting space.
Dinner Table’s popularity only seems to be growing, and is already definitely scheduled for Winter Semester ’16. Students will be able to sign up the first week of classes. Williams is already predicting that, based off how quickly students signed up for this first semester, Dinner Table will only continue to flourush. It’s the ideal example for approaching diversity “at a slant,” as Williams likes to say: rather than forcing students to address the issues of diversity head-on, finding pockets and opportunities to engage students in their differences that would be most comfortable and convenient. She understands that Batesies are constantly busy, but as she notes, “at some point, you’ve got to eat!”