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Celebrating Diversity, Creating Unity

Students arriving at the Olin College dining hall last Thursday evening were greeting by an unusual sight: small displays of twigs and lights decorated each table, and wooden structures around the room supported luminous strings of bulbs, creating a special atmosphere for Olin’s first “Diversity Dinner and Poetry Slam.”

For Rame Hanna, Olin’s first director of diversity and inclusion and the organizer of that dinner, and of a week’s worth of activities celebrating diversity on campus, the point was not just to create a festive atmosphere, it was also to offer a comfortable space for discussions about personal identities and differing backgrounds among the student body and the faculty and staff who attended.

The room buzzed with conversation. One student got up and read a poem about life in the barrio. Another read a poem written by his sister. To Hanna, such personal statements help foster greater interpersonal understanding and empathy, a necessary precondition to breaking down barriers and coming together as a community.

“It’s not only about bringing people together to talk about diversity, but also to create community and social change,” says Hanna.

The dinner was the culmination of a week of activities organized under the hashtag #ourolin. The campaign launched on Monday, September 25, under the banner of “Diversity through Art.” Community members were invited to artistically transform a special logo Hanna had created for the week based on reflections on their identity.

Tuesday saw a “Diversity Dialog,” as Oliners came together over lunch to engage in conversations about diversity and identity. On Wednesday, faculty, staff and students had their pictures taken, and offered observations on what Olin means to them, part of an effort to create a “large-scale mosaic” of the community.

The goal of the week’s activities, says Hanna, is to create a welcoming and comfortable environment for people to express who they are and work together collaboratively.

“I think diversity does a lot of amazing things to an environment, especially an institution where people are learning and growing,” says Hanna. “Being able to work with people that are very different from you, and learn from these different perspectives, ideas and cultures, not only allows people to be more creative and innovative but also fosters a community that embraces difference.”

The new emphasis on diversity comes as Olin welcomes the Class of 2021, the most diverse in its history.

The arrival of the class takes place against a backdrop of increasing nativism in the national dialog, making efforts to understand the value of diversity even more important, notes Hanna.

“I think at this critical time in our society conversations around identity, specifically the systemic and disparate treatment and impact of marginalized identities, needs to happen often,” says Hanna. “Being able to create an atmosphere where we at this institution can be aware, learn and grow from what is happening means that we not only need to be informed and empowered, but also be responsible citizens who engage as an inclusive community to support everyone.”

First-year student Micah Reid, who says she is from “a number of marginalized communities,” chose Olin for its reputation of openness and success at promoting gender balance. She especially appreciated Tuesday’s “Diversity Dialog,” where students talked openly about their unique backgrounds and viewpoints.

“I feel more understood by my peers,” says Reid of the experience. “I do feel closer to them as individuals — I feel I know them a bit better, I feel I can support them a bit better, and it started a dialog I hope will continue throughout the year.”

That fits right into Hanna’s plans for the year, which include diversity training, guest speakers and social events to promote dialog and awareness.

“Being able to have an opportunity for people to talk about diversity, both good and bad, and feel comfortable sharing these narratives with others in a safe and welcoming space is one of the most inclusive things we can do at Olin,” he says.