Omarthan Clarke and Maria Gariepy stand in front of a painting of Africa in their office

Campus diversity leaders reflect on upcoming Unity Day

September 20, 2022
By: Deborah O'Neil

On Oct. 11, the campus community will celebrate Unity Day with a full calendar of new and expanded activities. To learn more about the spirit of Unity Day, Worcester State University Editorial Communications Director Deborah Alvarez O’Neil recently sat down with Chief Diversity & Equity Officer Maria Isabel Gariepy and Assistant Director Omarthan Clarke, who lead the University’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity. Anyone interested in presenting at this year’s Unity Day or seeking more information can contact Maria at mgariepy1@worcester.edu.

Unity Day has been evolving. Tell me about the history of this celebration at Worcester State.

Maria: WSU held a Unity Walk in fall 2021 led by our previous student trustee and leader Anna Johnson. Anna led this walk where we celebrated our diversity and raised awareness around DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] on campus. The goal was to celebrate and strive to be a more welcoming and inclusive campus while we showed our campus community that we each belong here.

In late spring 2022, President Maloney appointed me to lead the efforts in planning our fall 2022 Unity Day. We have secured input from key stakeholders including DEI committee members, the multicultural programming committee, CTL’s Faculty Equity Fellow, faculty members, student groups such as TWA (Third World Alliance), as well as administrators and varied leadership on campus. We are looking to build upon the Unity Walk from 2021 so we can have a bridge event for what we see as a university-wide celebration to inaugurate an annual WSU tradition. A working group has been meeting regularly to make Unity Day a success. 

What is Unity Day all about?

Omarthan: Unity Day is meant to be a celebration of the work that we are doing and progress we have made in our campus community. We are moving toward greater social justice and increasing our inclusion efforts. In our world, country, state, and local political settings, discussions of inclusion, diversity, and social justice can be quite tense. But making progress on such things such as inclusion and diversity and increasing awareness of the value of diversity is something to celebrate. Unity Day is rooted in that spirit.

Maria: Unity Day is an opportunity for every member of our campus community to come together and celebrate what makes us unique, while connecting us with others who may be very different from us. We will have an opportunity to listen to and witness what our colleagues, classmates, and friends care about and how their individual experiences and expertise contribute to making us better global citizens. Some of the programming includes open dialogue and conversations that may be uncomfortable, and we should acknowledge growth and learning takes place when we are uncomfortable. This will open us to increased awareness of perspectives we may not have considered before. At the core of Unity Day is also this environment we build when we create a more inclusive campus climate where we all belong. Unity Day is also about listening to the life stories of people who have different plights than ours, while we also take care of and celebrate ourselves, no matter who we are and how we identify within the microcosms of our university.

Unity would seem to imply an action – a coming together. Who are we trying to bring together for Unity Day? 

Omarthan: The easy answer is everyone. It is also okay to be specific. While we are trying to increase social justice and recognize privilege and imbalances of power, we are trying to bring people of different perceived races, people of different ethnicities, people of different gender identities and different sexual orientations together. We want folks to talk with each other and hear each other’s stories. We want people to find ways to collaborate. We also want folks to laugh together and enjoy good conversation with someone they may not have had an opportunity to share those things with. We talk about cultural competencies and intercultural competencies. A lot of those competencies are built through being curious, being courageous, through inviting new experiences and conversations with folks we haven’t spoken to before.

Sometimes within the university setting, people can feel separated across fields or status as an administrator or staff member or faculty member – even by unions. Every role is equally important. We want folks to know that and believe that. It’s not just to unify people, it is to celebrate the unity we already have.

Maria: We want to bring together every member of our campus community and celebrate our differences, acknowledge our intersectionalities, and learn from each other in this process. This coming together is important and central to what the work toward Unity day has been like. When you look at the outline for the day you will see we have collaborators from within and from outside WSU. These are members of the larger Worcester community, faculty members, staff, and students who are participating in and leading panels, who are facilitating conversations, who are sharing a very important part of who they are in the pursuit of a more equitable educational environment for our current and future students. 

Unity Day will be a much bigger celebration this year. What are some of the new events you are most excited about?

Omarthan: There is a collaboration with the Department of Justice. They will be facilitating Dialogue on Belonging. We are inviting students, staff, faculty, and administrators to participate in these curated conversations to provide an opportunity to speak openly and speak sincerely about their lived experiences and the experiences they are having on campus. In this space of higher education, it is very easy to articulate that we believe in everything for everyone, but we still carry our own biases because that is human nature. This is an opportunity to investigate these biases and how they appear on campus. It’s an opportunity to explore how folks increase inclusion and utilize the resources and infrastructure we already have to build the campus community we imagine is best for everyone. That is a program I’m very excited about.

As an artist – I’m a painter – there is a paint night taking place with students and everyone will be invited. Residence Life is facilitating it, and I’m really excited about that. They are gearing it toward creating images inspired by thoughts of unity and diversity. 

Maria: This is a hard question as I am involved in every aspect of the planning and wish I could attend every single session. But I am particularly eager for the Common Ground ceremony led by TWA and other student leaders. The Black Lives Matter flag raising will take place during the Common Ground ceremony accompanied by student reflections, which I am looking forward to. The fact that this is student-led is significant, as their voices are represented and they actively participate as decision makers at our institution. 

All sessions taking place during the day will be led by different campus experts that each focus on a unique lived experience or area of expertise they want to share with the WSU community, including but not limited to a student panel led by Student Accessibility Services and a session focused on Uplifting LGBTQ+ voices, as well as many others taking place beginning at 12 p.m. 

What does unity mean to you?

Omarthan: Unity describes the phenomenon of when members of a community truly internalize the gravity of each individual’s need for support from every other individual. When we truly internalize our need for everyone else’s support and others’ need for our support, it ignites a courage, it ignites vulnerability, and it ignites opportunity to co-create policies and solutions.

Maria: It’s the acknowledgement that we need each other and that we are connected and interdependent in such a way that in order for us to look into the future and move forward cohesively, we have to strive for every individual’s success, which later becomes part of our collective success story. For us to move forward individually and institutionally, we need to be collaborative and intentional in how we approach the work we do and how we observe the experiences we each have in our campus community. How can we get there together?

How are we doing as a campus in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Maria: Our DEI journey continues to evolve as more and more campus constituents intentionally develop the skill set needed and the inquisitive mindset that centering DEI at the core of our work requires. When individuals at the table ask themselves and others, “How does this practice, policy, decision, or action impact our minoritized students and employees?” we know there is progress. These are the very important conversations that are taking place at WSU in terms of DEI and advancing racial equity on campus. Our work is not only based on a mandate of equal opportunity, it goes beyond that mandate for which we have established the necessary structures to be effective and deliver on the promise of advancing DEI work on campus.  

There is more progress to be made. We can’t say that we arrived, but the main drivers in this journey are every single one of the campus constituents that elevate the voices that need to be heard and that commit selflessly to ensure that we continue to drive change at the speed our campus deserves and needs. Finally, this important work is only possible because we have engagement and commitment in all directions and at all levels of our institution. 

Omarthan: It’s difficult to have a single answer to that. I see the evidence of folks sincerely trying. Since I’ve been at the university, I’ve seen plenty of people who hold power recognize their power and privilege and talk about how they want to foster progress through leveraging their privilege. They also openly share how it’s uncomfortable to explore one’s own privilege. Those are beautiful outcomes of the work we do.

I also see evidence that we need to keep working. My role will be irrelevant when we are done doing this work – when I have one answer: “Yes, we are healed and taking care of each other.” We are trying to undo centuries upon centuries of structural oppression, hierarchy, and classism which becomes expressed as racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism, etc. With all this time building systems of oppression, they have become very sophisticated. Worcester State is at the forefront of addressing these issues head on. And from the president across the campus leadership, folks are openly saying, “We have work to do.” We might not be where we want to be, but we are headed there.

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