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Consensus-Building &Commitment

Consensus-Building &Commitment

An Interview with NCORE’s Dr. Maggie Abudu

Conducted by Robin Bennefield

MEMPHIS – Are Asian Americans becoming honorary Whites? What is White Privilege? Ethnic Studies and American Studies: Friends or Enemies?
These were just a few of the provocative questions raised and pondered here during last month’s National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE).
While the answers to these questions were complex and oftentimes hard to come by, most scholars of color attending the 12th annual NCORE conference seemed just glad for a chance to discuss issues of race and ethnicity with others who understood the isolation they often face on traditionally White college campuses.
Nearly 1,100 administrators, faculty, and students of color attended the five-day conference at the austere Peabody Hotel, blocks away from Beale Street. The 45 scheduled workshops, presentations, and case studies along with four keynote addresses from scholars representing all the ethnic groups attending- African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American were drafted and designed to promote thought-provoking discussion and insightful solutions to the daily problems faculty, administrators, and students may face on campus.
Started 12 years ago as a response to rising racial violence across the country and on college campuses in the mid-1980s, NCORE’s first conference was held at the University of Oklahoma in Norman with six workshops and two keynoters, drawing some 450 attendees. The conference continues to grow and maintain the support of the University of Oklahoma with annual state funding at approximately $125,000 each year.
Dr. Maggie Abudu, executive director of the Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies at the University of Oklahoma and principal planner of NCORE, attributes strong partnerships between various ethnic groups and well-analyzed presentations to the growing success of one of the nation’s largest conferences on race in higher education.
And Dr. Abudu’s interest in race relations in higher education is not just professional, but personal as well, having successfully raised her two daughters from an interracial marriage.
In an interview with Black Issues Associate Editor Robin Bennefield, Dr. Abudu shares her thoughts on NCORE and race relations on today’s college campuses.

What has made NCORE a success?
I envisioned from the beginning that [race and ethnicity] would be a big topic well into the 21st century. What is great is that we are able to be inclusive and create a safe place for people to dialogue across occupational roles and background. It’s the only way things get solved. I always envisioned a long-term commitment because I knew these problems were not going to go away overnight. The conference is also living and reflective of the people who come. We are responding to their needs not in a marketing sense but in a genuine sense.
Why do people continue to come to NCORE?  Have you measured its impact?
There are no systematic measures of the impact of the conference. There has been no time. But the impact is still obvious. People come back year after year. They come back because the conference is rejuvenating. There seems to be a real sadness among participants to go back to their institutions to work in isolation without much support and understanding for the effort they are making. There are so few faculty [members] dedicated to these issues [of race and equality] and they are often overburdened.
People come to this conference and experience a different model of interacting and sharing of ideas and life experiences. This happens because of the willingness to listen and partner with one another. It’s about building a consensus and finding a common ground. To do that is exhilarating and empowering for everyone. Once you’ve done it that way, you can’t do it any other way. It’s really transformative.

How have you been able to work with the various ethnic groups represented during the conference? Have differences presented problems?
I was never resistant to consensus building. People who are disempowered and underrepresented often go to the powerbrokers and find a bolted door. Some see fit to preserve that bolted door. Our networking groups helped address some of these issues.
I partnered with the networking groups, which allowed them to move beyond any one group’s vision. Once you engage people that way and it is clear that there is another model, it can work, at least here.
For every year that we have partnered, we can see how much better the conference has become. Three years ago, there was almost no Latino representation. But in partnership with the Latino networking group, which sent topics and agendas for the conference, their numbers grew.

What are the requirements for presenters and how rigorous are those requirements?
We owe the presenters a tremendous debt. They work hard and they are willing to keep working on it. The work shops are dynamic and changing. They are getting better every year. The program infrastructure is already in place and formats set.
We contact presenters directly or they send in programs for consideration. Presentations should fall within  eight categories, policy, curriculum, interactive training, research evaluation, case studies, theoretical models, long and short-range planning, and training of diversity trainers. We keep the categories broad and let the presenter choose the specific topic. We want to make sure that they push the envelope and I make the final decision on all presentations.
We’ve incorporated more research evaluation and we are looking at how to make the presentations more proactive versus reactive. We are trying to be on the cutting edge of these issues. An example is multiracial identity. It is only now being given its due. Demographically, we can’t ignore this population. We can’t defy the numbers.

What do you think of similar conferences on race in higher education?
Appallingly, I don’t have time to go to other conferences. Our busiest time is mid-July to mid-November and in four months, we look over all the evaluations from the conference. We read each one because they are very qualitative and provide direction for the next year. We have another four months to put out the program book and the call for papers goes out in February.
I also don’t feel that I have to be up on what the other conferences are doing. Not too many of us are doing this work. I need to stay focused on NCORE and what we are doing. This is important work and we need everyone in the country doing this job.

What advice would you give others trying to put on a successful conference tackling issues of race in higher education?
Get an insightful, diverse advisory group. Two heads are better than one is an old adage but true. You need continual commitment and involvement from this group. We all bring something to the table, and we’ve got to find a way to get all perspectives included.
If you are not threatened by different ideas, remain open to them, not trying to protect your ego, and following your commitment, you will be successful. Try to do things that are gutsy and do them for the right reasons. There should be some justification with some integrity. Remember that anything we do does not define who we are. Keep yourself open to learning. These issues are sensitive and difficult. 
I think we are on a ladder of awareness and life experiences. We continue to grow and develop and we must take a lifelong approach to addressing these issues. When you take that attitude , others will respond and realize that we are all still learning. Things having to do with race, culture, and national origin are deeply ingrained. We also have an awful lot to unlearn.

How would you assess race relations in higher education in the 12 years since NCORE?
If you read things like the Race Relations Reporter, you’ll get a very discouraging picture. But a positive thing is that more and more institutions are sending not just token people but teams of people to NCORE and the commitment is definitely there among the people who come. The harder thing is getting the true institutional commitment to these issues.
Most of us who work on these issues, and I include myself in that group, wherever we are, work in isolation. There are just not enough of us, so real comprehensive, widespread institutional change is difficult. We are in a constant struggle. To renew ourselves and keep going is very hard. Many of us who come to the conference are in desperate need of a rich, diverse, vital, and positive forum where we can engage one another, not just at this conference, but on our own campuses as well.
One of the things that has kept this conference alive and vital is this sense of renewal and this has been true for faculty [members] of color and true for those committed to being allies to the cause of racial inclusion and understanding.
There is a lot that is positive that we can say about this conference and things going on at some college campuses, but we still have a long way to go to building inclusive environments that permeate entire higher education institutions. 

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