Diversity activists lead discussion at Hillel on effective cross-cultural dialogue

Matthew Choi, Assistant Campus Editor

Black Jewish activist Yavilah McCoy called upon students to think of themselves as multidimensional activists Monday at a talk at Fiedler Hillel Center.

McCoy, executive director of VISIONS, an organization dedicated to equipping others with the tools to engage in equitable dialogue, and Rick Pinderhughes, its director of programs, spoke to a group of about 15 people explaining steps to engage in effective discourse in the context of different power dynamics.

McCoy and Pinderhughes used examples from the Torah to illustrate and break down contemporary forms of activism at the event, hosted by Hillel and the Jewish United Fund’s Israel Education Center.

McCoy and Pinderhughes led participants through a series of guidelines for effective cross-cultural dialogue. The guidelines stressed confronting instead of shying away from disagreements, but without blaming, shaming or attacking oneself or others.

“It’s okay to disagree,” Pinderhughes said. “But how we disagree is very important.”

Engaging in disagreements respectfully is vital — even if others may not be doing so — to set an example, McCoy said.

“Sometimes one effective way to change is modeling a path that one has not already taken,” McCoy said. “There’s a phrase in the Torah that says, ‘If there is a place where you find no man or woman, be that man or woman.’”

McCoy discussed how different faces of activism can be characterized by four different experiences: being targeted by oppression, being a bystander, being a perpetrator and being an ally. Everyone can play all four roles simultaneously on different issues, she said, which is why it is important to be self aware in multiple dimensions. Bringing up her own experiences as a black Jewish woman, McCoy talked about the importance of recognizing intersectionality and nuances when engaging in dialogue.

“Even in the context of activism, we have to understand that term ‘intersectionality,’” McCoy said. “If we understand ourselves as dimensional activists, we can bring ourselves to that activism still in learning mode as opposed to being static works in progress that don’t have any opportunities for change.”

Just as activism is multidimensional, so too is oppression, McCoy said. Citing the levels of modern racism defined by Valerie Batts, an author and scholar at VISIONS, McCoy discussed the different levels on which oppression can operate, from personal prejudices and biases to cultural norms of racial stratification.

“A challenge we have is that we spend most of our time thinking about racism at the personal level,” McCoy said. “Cultural (racism) is, ‘does anybody even know I’m here?’ It’s the culture of what it means to be — to be valued at this university, in the White House, in government, anyplace. Does that value exclude me, leave me out, set me up to be less than?”

Religious texts can be applied to contemporary issues, McCoy said, using the story of Moses killing an Egyptian and fleeing to Midian in the Torah to illustrate contemporary issues of intersectionality.

“If we can not see our history and traditions as being frozen, but as being flexible, to be able to incorporate learnings across time, we can also operate outside of oppression,” McCoy said.

Weinberg senior Nathan Bennett said he was happy to have had the opportunity to learn about new ways to be part of campus conversations about oppression. Bennett, the Israel Education Center intern at NU Hillel, helped organize the event.

“Our main goal was to give students an opportunity to hear from someone who had a pretty unique perspective on race on college campuses coming as a black, Jewish woman,” Bennett said. “Those goals were definitely successfully met.”

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