Before the pandemic, before the murder of George Floyd and the January 6 attacks on the Capitol building, there was already enough nationwide polarization to inspire three Rutgers-Newark faculty to create a project called “Dialogue in a Time of Fracture” as part of their Mellon Humanities Fellowship.
In 2019, they started planning events and a digital platform to continue conversations when the series was done. Once the COVID-19 outbreak occurred in 2020, followed by the social and political upheavals of the following two years, they saw an even greater need for a campus-wide dialogue.
The project will launch next week, including a two-day symposium March 24 to March 25, workshops, and the RU-N Dialogue platform – rundialogue.rutgers.edu.
“As these things unfolded, we were getting together to talk,” said faculty member Jason Cortés one of the organizers of the event, along with faculty Jennifer Bernstein and Domingo Morel. “One of the things we don’t usually talk about in a public forum is the way the world has impacted our own homes, conversations with family members, and how they’ve been triggered by these events.”
“We’ve seen an arc since George Floyd’s murder,” added Cortés, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Latino studies, and chair of the Spanish and Portuguese Department. “Conversations were ignited by that and some were difficult conversations to have.”
The organizers hope providing a space for the Rutgers-Newark community to explore these fault lines, and the historical forces underlying them, can be transformational. “If you don’t have people with diverging opinions, you can’t make progress,” said Bernstein, an associate professor of graphic design, and co-director of Visual Means and the Design Consortium at Express Newark. “There’s a recognition that you must be in these uncomfortable places to make changes. It’s actually crucial.”
The series is one of many events this year marking RU-N’s 75th anniversary as a public institution, with a two-day symposium, workshops, and an ongoing digital platform for students and faculty to share ideas, images, and information. The site, created by Bernstein in collaboration with two of her design students, will become a collective archive, intended to sustain the dialogues sparked by the live events and encourage collaboration, she said. Among the topics introduced are gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, poverty and inequality, and immigration.
Events in the series include a panel on RU-N’s history of exclusion that will focus on student activism of the 1960s and 1970s, which succeeded in leading the university to become more inclusive, and discuss the work that remains. Programming devoted to the university’s relationship with the city of Newark will feature a conversation between Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor and Mayor Ras Baraka.
A panel discussion entitled “A Moment of Racial Reckoning” will examine the protest movement following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In this conversation, race and ethnicity scholars will place the demonstrations in a historical context and discuss the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead.
There will also be a panel on art, activism, and dialogue that will focus on the ways that creative practitioners across disciplines address societal fracture.
Bernstein recognized the potential for such a series when two students in her design class had an emotional disagreement on social media involving the politics of identity. It underscored that even in a diverse community like Rutgers-Newark, with a progressive mission, the same disputes happening nationwide were occurring on campus.
“The main thing for me was seeing how these two students, who were working with representation as a theme in our class, were missing each other’s point-of-view. Even among students who you think are hearing each other, they aren’t truly having a dialogue, they aren’t quite getting there,” said Bernstein. “The platform we’ve created invites people with different perspectives to engage, listen and ultimately build new knowledge and understanding.”
Chancellor Cantor encouraged the organizers to pursue the idea of a series exploring conflicts for RU-N’s 75thanniversary. “We decided that since RU-N has been a place where these types of difficult conversations have been had, let’s take this moment to highlight that,” said Bernstein.
Bernstein, Morel and Cortés say that their own approach to teaching has evolved in the past few years as divides of all types — ideological, economic, and political — have surfaced and grown more extreme. “I tell students, we’re not talking about the 1920s and the 1930s, we’re talking about now, you’re living through everything we’re teaching about,” said Morel, an associate professor of Political Science. “We also want them to realize this time and moment is different than others, there are different crises, different people around the table.”
The goal of the project is not to gather people with opposing views and arrive at some consensus or solution, the organizers said. “When you start with the intention of trying to listen to all sides, the assumption is that all the people present are welcomed,” said Morel. “Right now, we can’t exist with that assumption. Part of what’s happening nationally is an attack on who belongs. In my class, we may have different views but one thing I won’t accept is making people feel like they don’t belong.”