Carve Out Space for the Hurt: Create a Place for Community Healing

As noted in our first post, strong student reactions are appearing in campuses all over the country in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election.  Raw anger and frustration are coming from various directions: some from a crushing loss; others feel their “liberal” peers and professors disrespected their beliefs throughout campaign season; still others are fearful of potential discrimination based on their identity and violence.

These reactions reflect underlying pain and their struggle to address it.  The Divided Community Project suggests three principles for harnessing student energy toward positive outcomes: 1) establish a safe environment; 2) carve out space for the hurt to create a place for community healing 3) maintain a positive, constructive environment.

Our first post in this three-part series explored the first of three principles, establishing a safe environment.  This post explores opportunities for hosting students where they can  begin the process of healing so that they can address the concerns and fears of their peers.

Carve Out Space for the Hurt: Create a Place for Community Healing

When facing divisive issues students may want to grieve about the sources of division or what has been lost.  Giving students the opportunity to express their concerns within the school will initiate community healing.  Giving students a forum to speak to each other and other members of the community to witness and see each other’s humanity.

Encouraging students and administrators to speak more, whether in private conversations or formal facilitated conversations gives students space to build trust with one another and supportive faculty and staff.  Providing multiple forms of informal and formal meeting spaces gives students the opportunity to speak in spaces where they feel safe and comfortable while empowering supportive faculty and staff to host meaningful conversations.

If administrators meet with all affected student organizations within one week after divisive issues arise to express concern and understand the students’ sense of urgency, they will communicate that they appreciate depth of students’ concerns.  In the context of the recent election, administrators might encourage joint meetings of Republican and Democratic student groups once there has been enough emotional space from Election Day, together with other appropriate student organizations, where administrators can candidly express their reaction to this strange presidential election cycle. Doing so requires careful consideration of the scope of the conversation and the ground rules for such a meeting. Having a pre-meeting by the groups separately beforehand helps prep them for a conciliatory session.

In other meeting settings, administrators could shape and model, perhaps more deliberately than in a typical conversation, the professional values that shape their calling – e.g. professional schools such as law, education, medicine, and engineering – might reference the values in their respective professional creed when discussing the current challenges.

Administrators have a unique moment to re-affirm school commitment to shared heartfelt values and concrete ideas about how to address divisions.  Such meetings could be videotaped and distributed to a wider academic audience.

Administrators and students alike often find it easier to communicate via email and social media, but communication primarily through social media and email can quickly devolve into a destructive conversation.  Bringing students together in person  during divisive times promotes a heartfelt connection that cannot be matched through text, audio and even video.

If social media issues get out of control, consider using digital natives to explore positive avenues to communicate using social media.

Give students the opportunity to engage in processes aimed at improving inclusion rather than promoting exclusion.  Academic community members who are empowered to make contributions toward important policies may become more engaged-in and supportive-of future efforts.

During divisive times administrators might present current practices and policies to students and ask for student feedback, using faculty facilitators to collect student input in small groups.  Google docs provide a great opportunity collect information from multiple groups simultaneously.  Following a short discussion of the ideas generated, a school leader should report how these ideas will be considered moving forward.

During divisive times it may help to develop an academic environment where students enjoy their experience and feel they are valued members of the academic community.  Particularly when finals are in sight and tensions are high, it may make sense for the community to find excuses to celebrate collective values and have fun.  Here are some examples:

  • Talk up the traditional Thanksgiving and Holiday University events and plan for a larger-than-usual turnout where faculty and staff are encouraged to spend more time visiting with students.
  • Find an excuse to celebrate something other than the election.
  • On the final date of the semester, give faculty and staff hot chocolate or milkshakes.

A school is a community. When that community is shaken, its members need to first feel safe. Then the members need a space and a place to process a spectrum of emotions. Administrators have a responsibility to provide these to students and themselves in order to bring about community healing.

Our third and final post will consider how to maintain a positive, constructive environment.