Starting a (Carolina) Conversation

In small groups surrounding a dozen tables, more than 130 Carolina students, faculty and staff filled the Aquarium Lounge of the Frank Porter Graham Student Union on March 23. Chancellor Carol L. Folt, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp, Vice Chancellor for Workforce Strategy, Equity, and Engagement Felicia Washington and several other University leaders attended to participate in the important discussions and hear what was on the minds of others.

The goal for the reception-style event was simple: open the lines of communication to help understand different perspectives on current events and racial issues.

The 90-minute discussion was the first Pulse event and part of Carolina Conversations – an initiative launched March 20 in an effort to ensure that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill remains an inclusive and welcoming campus for all.

“The idea is to really use as many opportunities as we can to talk about things that are top-of-mind for people,” said Folt, who moved among the tables to participate. “Conversations are really needed. People don’t necessarily know what other people are actually even thinking. A lot of times people don’t even have the same definition of what needs to be discussed.

“We also find that every time people sit down to a table and start talking, people feel better because they find that other people do want to talk to them about important issues.”

The small groups were led by facilitators who encouraged discussion by making sure different perspectives were discussed while maintaining a “safe place” where individuals could express themselves without being judged or intimidated.

Every 15 minutes, the groups rearranged to allow attendees to hear multiple views.

“I think it is really important that people hear and that people know that at the highest level of the institution — the chancellor, the vice chancellors, the deans — that these issues matters to us,” Crisp said. “The safety, the climate and how people feel on this campus are important to us.”

Said Kyle Villemain, student body vice president: “It’s really a time to talk to people you may not normally talk to, reach out and learn from other’s experiences.”

And there will be more opportunities.

Three Carolina Pulse events are scheduled for the remainder of the semester, each covering a different topic. The next Pulse will be held March 31 at 5 p.m. and will focus on social media anonymity and integrity. Two more events are scheduled for April 8 and April 14.

In addition, My Carolina Voice events will create opportunities for students, faculty and staff to gather and share their views with University administrators and one another. The first event, to be held April 16 at 5:30 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Student Union, will be a student-only forum.

Students also have the opportunity through Carolina Conversations to participate in My Chance, which offers special funding and assistance to students who wish to facilitate their own small events, discussions or gatherings with individuals or groups that cross cultural boundaries.

“This is one conversation of many, but it’s turning out to be positive,” Villemain said. “I’d be interested to see what comes out of these small conversations. … There are so many issues facing our campus right now and we have to come at them in a joint way.”

For more on Carolina Conversations, click here.

By Brandon Bieltz, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Published March 24, 2015.