The tradition of the Month of Understanding started in 2004, when Urban hired its first Dean of Multiculturalism, Tommy Goodwin. Since then, the Month of Understanding has been a fundamental aspect of Urban’s multicultural curriculum. In January and February of each school year, students and faculty gather to participate in a series of lunchtime presentations and forums organized around a particular theme in order to learn, discuss, and engage with various world issues concerning multiculturalism.
In the 1990s, Urban had an annual Diversity Day, which involved both learning and celebrating diversity inside and outside Urban. Although the Month of Understanding is a fairly new addition to Urban, Charlotte Worsley, Urban’s Assistant Head of Student Life, noted, “It’s sort of the same idea that’s been with Urban all along, which is that you always have to celebrate and learn.”
This year’s Month of Understanding was accompanied with a series of teach-ins, which have appeared throughout the school’s history in response to major world events. “When Ferguson happened and then the Eric Garner decision…all these people were protesting and we wanted people to understand what was going on, so we decided to go back to the teach-in model,” Worsley explained.
Each teach-in workshop focused on one of four themes: Learn, Discuss, Act and Be. While the nature of the teach-in inherently favors a lecture-based model, Urban’s structure left space for students to listen and/or engage, based on their personal feelings and preferences. “I liked sessions C and D because students had a sense of agency,” explained Ken Garcia-Gonzales, Urban’s current Dean of Multicultural life. “They got to pick where they wanted to go after the mandatory and required baseline knowledge,” which was provided in the first two teach-in sessions.
Garcia-Gonzales also spoke to the importance of striking a balance between adult and student leadership. Given the weight of the issues under discussion this year, including police brutality and racial discrimination, “multi-culti felt like we had to share the responsibility or at least hand off the responsibility to faculty to be able to deliver some of the heavy lifting and heavy content,” Garcia-Gonzales explained. “Sometimes adults need to deliver difficult content.”
According to Worsley, organizing this year’s teach-ins required a tremendous collaborative effort among the faculty. “It was pretty incredible,” Worsley remarked. She compared the faculty’s initiative in this process to the school’s response to the Rodney King riots back in the early 1990s. This year, before leading their own workshops, faculty members attended a series of teach-ins themselves, during their January Professional Day, providing them with a basis of knowledge and leadership skills.
All in all, this year’s approach to the Month of Understanding proved successful. The various events laid down important context, gave students a chance to reflect, and most importantly, kept the conversation going.