A campaign to respect and understand

A diverse community that is engaged is the “heart of the University,” says Will Gipson, associate vice provost for equity and access.

But in his everyday conversations with students, it was evident to Gipson that communication could be improved on Penn’s campus. It’s important to talk through feelings of fear, stress, and confusion with people who might have different mindsets, he notes.

Working with Provost Vincent Price, the Campaign for Community was born.

“The thinking was in the same way that we do campaigns to ensure the fiscal health of the University going forward,” says Gipson, former University Chaplain. “We thought, why don’t we do something similar around building community, having an emphasis around topics where there are multiple perspectives and disagreements.”

The Campaign comes at a particularly important time, as the country has been rocked by a series of incidents—many involving interactions between law enforcement officers and primarily people from black communities.

“For Michael Brown in Ferguson, who would’ve been going into his sophomore year this academic year, many students in the class of 2018 saw themselves,” explains Gipson. “It wasn’t just national headlines. His death had very personal implications for them.”

Earlier this year, students, faculty, staff, and administrators formed a steering committee for the Campaign for Community. There was a soft launch in the spring with a town hall that featured six Penn deans engaged in “difficult conversations.” The Campaign officially launched in September, with an announcement of support for a variety of events by and for the Penn community.

It’s easy at Penn to become isolated in groups with people “who are not necessarily all that different from yourself,” says Abel McDaniels, a senior history and urban studies major on the steering committee.

“I think this Campaign for Community can go a long way in helping break down some of those structures,” he says.

The Campaign’s small grants program is awarding sums of $250 to $1,500 to students, faculty, and staff who submit proposals for creative events or activities that encourage dialogue about diverse topics. The steering committee will vet those proposals, and 20 will be awarded funding each academic year. Interested applicants can submit ideas on the Campaign’s website.

The first cycle of submissions will be accepted through Nov. 1 for fall and spring events. The second cycle will begin Dec. 1 and run through March 15 for spring events only.

One of the Campaign’s first grant awards went to an Oct. 13 event at the Kelly Writers House, “Ayad Akhtar: A Conversation on Religion, Class, and Race,” featuring the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

The Campaign promises to also provide branding and promotional support to events that support its mission, but might not necessarily ask for or need financial help. The Campaign is supporting an upcoming event this way: “Academic Freedom Now: A Symposium Marking the 100th Anniversary of the Scott Nearing Affair,” taking place on Tuesday, Oct. 27, at the Kislak Center in Van Pelt-Dietrich Library.

The Campaign’s steering committee is charged with planning its own activities, too—a few large-scale events that will be campus-wide each year.

Faculty Senate Past-Chair Claire Finkelstein says the Campaign is trying to create “a safe environment in which painful topics can be discussed.” She referenced issues not only around race, but also sexual assault, open expression, and mental health.

Finkelstein, who’s also a professor of law and of philosophy, serves as chair of the steering committee with Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, vice provost for university life, and Beth Winkelstein, vice provost for education and a bioengineering professor.

“My biggest hope for the Campaign for Community would be that we could find a way to celebrate our differences,” Finkelstein says, “and have those differences be a source of academic, personal, and spiritual growth for all of us, rather than seeing differences as in any sense a threat to our own values.”

Campaign for Community