• Rising to the Occasion

    UChicago's diversity awareness campaign calls for greater understanding

By Carmen Marti
Photos by Joel Wintermantle

Though Houston mayor Annise Parker was in the final weeks of a run for her third term in office (an election she won), she made time to visit the University of Chicago to discuss diversity and urban policy.

On Thursday, Oct. 17, Parker served as the keynote speaker for RISE, the University’s diversity awareness initiative, and attended a reception for student leaders. On Friday, Parker participated in a panel discussion on the role of cities in solving national economic problems.

At her keynote address on Thursday night, Parker’s remarks were fundamentally about tolerance. “We must enlarge the plots of common ground,” she said to a nearly full house in the Cloister Club of Ida Noyes Hall. “Separate but equal is not enough.”

Parker’s comments reflect the mission of RISE, which centralizes the University’s efforts to promote consideration of and dialogue about identity, whether that’s sexual orientation, race, gender, religion, class, nationality, or disability.

“We have to find ways to connect,” Parker said. “We have to free ourselves from the vestiges of discrimination.”

RISE, which stands for Reflect. Intervene. Speak. Engage., was established last spring for just that purpose.

“We want to invite critical thinking about living in a diverse world,” said Eleanor Daugherty, Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Associate Dean in the College.  “We’re invested in who our students are when they leave here. We hope they feel a greater degree of social responsibility because of being on this campus.”

So does Kimberly McGee, a member of the RISE inaugural advisory board and a second-year graduate student in the School of Social Service Administration, who expressed her excitement about the initiative. “It gives us a chance to further the conversation about identity and diversity and awareness of privilege in ways that help people understand how others feel,” she said. “And maybe we’ll show that no matter how different we are, we’re the same.”

Toward that end, RISE serves as an organizing unit for all diversity-related events at UChicago, co-sponsoring a keynote speaker each quarter, supporting a public awareness initiative to raise consciousness and acceptance of diversity on campus, and providing not only a resource for the various student initiatives on campus to converge, but a new connection for the University and the community.

In addition, RISE is part of the University’s long-term, ongoing effort to support diversity on campus. More than 20 years ago, UChicago was one of the first universities to offer domestic partnership benefits to gay and lesbian couples. It has long been recognized as one of the most LGBT-friendly universities in the United States. This fall, the Registrar’s office established a Preferred Name Policy, which permits students to officially identify themselves by a name other than their legal name (unless a legal name is required).

“One of the values of these initiatives is that they delineate and announce the community’s expectations, both from an institutional standpoint and from the students’ perspective,” said Jeffrey Howard, Director of the Office of LGBTQ Student Life. “Not only does RISE centralize diversity programming, it unifies the campus in terms of everyone expecting, seeing and feeling respect and support. That’s a great takeaway for students.”

That’s the point. In addition to an academic education, through initiatives such as RISE, UChicago strives to provide a social education.

This cause was furthered through the event on Friday, which was organized by the Institute of Politics in partnership with the Harris School of Public Policy and the UChicago Office of Civic Engagement. A panel discussion of the role of cities in national economic policymaking, the event convened Parker, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, Derek Douglas, UChicago Vice President for Civic Engagement and former White House urban policy advisor, and Scott Allard, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration. It was moderated by Carol Marin, political editor for NBC5 News and political columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper.

Inevitably the conversation turned to diversity. “You can’t talk about being a mayor in a big city without consideration for diversity,” said Steve Edwards, Deputy Director for Programming at the Institute of Politics. “Parker talks a lot about demographics; she understands the power of uniting the varying aspects of a big city.”

At the end of her talk, Mayor Parker recounted a proverb about a bully and a wise woman. In the story, the bully tries to trick the wise woman by asking her to predict whether a butterfly trapped in his hands was alive or dead. Realizing whichever way she answered the bully could create the opposite, the wise woman replied that she couldn’t tell; the answer was in his hands.”

Precisely, said Parker. “Each one of us has the ability to create the world. We can all create or destroy. The answer is in our hands.”