Meeting of Diversity in Stiles Hall class “Facing you, facing me”

classroom_joshua_jordan_file
Joshua Jordan/File

Sixteen students sit in a room. Some are tall, some are small, some have milky white complexions, while others have skin saturated with melanin. Each writes a number on a slip of paper and places it into a bin. Then, a slender man with gray hair and deep-set eyes reaches into the bin and retrieves each slip, one by one, reading the number written on it aloud: “2 million… 3 million… zero…”

These numbers are the approximate net worths of each student’s family, and this exercise is just one of the many in the class “Facing You, Facing Me.”

But this two-unit, pass/no pass course is unlike any other at UC Berkeley. You won’t find it advertised alongside major requirements on departmental websites, and to enroll you cannot simply add it to your CalCentral enrollment shopping cart. Each semester, approximately 16 students with different gender identities, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations and socioeconomic statuses meet once a week for two hours to learn not about statistics or economics, but rather about themselves and each other.

These students are usually referred by members of the class from previous semesters and are then interviewed before being granted admission. Each week, the topic of discussion focuses on issues faced by one cultural group and is led by members who inhabit those identities. Through these dialogues, topics such as sexism, racism, classism and privilege are confronted head, or rather, face, on.

The man facilitating these conversations is David Stark, creator of “Facing You, Facing Me” and executive director of Stiles Hall, a private, nonprofit agency that works with UC Berkeley to provide programs that support underrepresented students. While Stark has facilitated this class at UC Berkeley for more than 30 years, its conception came from his involvement in the aftermath of a high school desegregation program in Boston. There, after the 1965 Racial Imbalance Act, Stark witnessed community outrage over integration of students of color into low-income, predominantly white schools. “Parents were throwing rocks at the buses coming in. It was a national disgrace,” Stark explained.

But out of this failed attempt at integration by the government came a successful attempt led by a group of mothers from both the Black and white communities. These mothers created a program in which kids chose one day a week to meet in a communal space, not with the explicit goal of interacting with peers of other races, but rather to do music, dance or learn about the legal system. Through the shared practice of these mutual interests, the students were able to interact in a positive setting, allowing them to “build relationships and have a reason to be together,” Stark said.

But forging community connections was only one part of the Boston program’s success. It was Stark and his team’s role to ensure that the group was composed of both Black and white students in equal numbers and that there were both Black and white teachers. Stark claimed that this emphasis on the demographic breakdown of the group is critical to the success of diversity efforts both then and now. And even with both communities equally represented, “You can’t … still have white people running everything,” he said.

The irony that Stark, a white, cisgender male from an upper-middle class socioeconomic background heads this intersectional diversity effort is not lost on him. Each semester he co-teaches “Facing You, Facing Me” with a female member of one of the racial minority groups present in the class — something he considers critical to the success of the course: “There (are) ways (my co-facilitators) do things that I don’t do … and (make) different people feel safe.” Michael Cerda-Jara, a 28-year-old student who took the class his first semester at UC Berkeley, described Stark’s role, saying that “for the most part, he stayed out of the conversation. … He would just sit back and watch and hear what we had to say.”

In addition to diversity of ethnic backgrounds, Stark emphasizes the inclusion of socioeconomic diversity as an important factor that is often overlooked by other diversity efforts. “Middle-class or upper-middle-class students… (are rarely) in a space with people who … are just struggling to get by,” and thus rarely encounter these issues on a personal level. Stark laments the lack of meaningful programs, especially at UC Berkeley, that are dedicated to connecting members of what he refers to as often “segregated” groups, alluding to both the social tensions that spurred the conception of the course as well as the societal and political inequalities that still impede the flow of discourse from community to community.

While much of the structure of “Facing You, Facing Me” has not changed over time, with each new semester comes a different group of students, and with them a different set of experiences and series of conversations. In-class activities, such as drawing net worths out of a hat, are designed to provoke reactions and thus create space for the unfiltered dialogue necessary to develop a better understanding of one another. Over the past 32 years, it is the students who “guided the development of the course,” Stark said. At its inception, the class involved a series of guest speakers including “a Holocaust survivor, a person who had been on death row and Ed Roberts,” who pioneered the disability movement. However, this element of the course was eliminated after students told Stark, “We love the guest speakers, but we don’t really want them. We want to talk to each other.”

For many, talking to each other can initially be a daunting task. Cerda-Jara said he often felt out of his comfort zone, describing the first day as feeling “too weird” for him. Coming from a background he describes as a “bubble within a bubble,” Cerda-Jara was predominantly exposed to only white and Latinx people, which made mingling with such a diverse group of individuals novel and, at times, uncomfortable. “I grew up in gangs, and I’m formerly incarcerated, so … first of all even being here I felt out of place, and I didn’t know how to interact with other people that were outside my background,” Cerda-Jara explained.

In order to help students overcome this unease and engage with one another, the first few classes consist primarily of getting to know their fellow classmates. The class’s weekly homework assignment during the first few weeks might be as simple as pairing up with another student to go share a favorite piece of music.

“It’s partly just an excuse to hang out,” Stark said. “People are really ready to connect across these lines. But you have to have it assigned.”

As the weeks continue, the students start to assign the homework themselves. During women’s week, for example, students who were not female-identifying were given the choice of wearing a sanitary pad during the day, relying on a walk service after dark or going to the Tang Center to inquire about pregnancy resources. For “Black Week,” homework assignments have ranged from non-Black students participating in a religious service at a traditionally Black church to sharing a meal with another student’s family, all with the goal being to “get on someone else’s turf a little bit. … That’s where the magic is,” Stark said.

The degree of connections established among members of the course range from respect and mutual understanding to friendships that exist even after the course ends. For Cerda-Jara, “Facing You, Facing Me” meant developing a friendship that, prior to the class, would have been unlikely. Because he and his friend were involved with gangs from different parts of California, Cerda-Jara says they would have been enemies had they met “on the street,” and that neither would have been expected to engage with one another “in a friendly manner.”

“That class helped me realize that although me and him share different beliefs as far as gangs go, we share a lot of similar experiences,” Cerda-Jara said. “We were able to connect in a lot of ways through (them). I don’t see him as I should see him — I see him as my friend, (and) I think that’s really cool.”

But while positive relationships may have emerged, the class still covers difficult, fraught ground that frequently spurs emotional reactions from participants. The moment when Stark read off the numbers written on those slips of paper was one that Cerda-Jara said he will never forget. “It made me feel mad and sad because I wrote down zero on mine.” And his reaction is not unusual — Cerda-Jara recounts that conversations sometimes led to crying or shouting among classmates, saying, “It was pretty intense, but I think it was necessary. … Everybody tried to keep it as respectful as possible.”

Despite these efforts, respecting someone is not the same as relating to them — an issue with which Cerda-Jara struggled to reconcile during interactions with fellow Latinx students. Though he identifies as Latino, he chose not to participate in leading the discussion during Latinx week. “I didn’t want to participate because I didn’t relate to the other Latinx people that were in the class because they didn’t grow up like me,” he shared. “My experience growing up as a Latino … is experienced by a lot of Latinx people, but they’re not (at UC Berkeley), and the chances that they’ll get here are very slim.” In this way, diversity of ethnic background alone is insufficient in reflecting a true diversity of experiences.

But these feelings of disconnect do not necessarily work against the mission of “Facing You, Facing Me.” The class’s primary aim, ultimately, is not to forge unlikely friendships or to provoke conversation into conflict. It is not even to counter the intolerance exhibited by this country’s current political system. Rather, Stark shares that his goal for “Facing You, Facing Me” is to impact and influence the students involved as they pursue positions of leadership.

“If two or three of the kids who are going to be senior managers at McKinsey or Google get shaken and moved emotionally and end up wanting to hire different than the ones who hired them do, … (or if) the low-income kids see that rich people aren’t all that smart … and that behind the walls of white perfection is a lot of drug addiction and mental illness and unhappiness, … it’s a kind of empowerment,” Stark said. “Individual empowerment and individual change for these leaders. That’s my hope.”

In this way, “Facing You, Facing Me” exists, at its core, to change the world not through drastic action, but through changing the mindsets of the students who participate. For Cerda-Jara, now a senior, this class succeeded in doing so. “My first semester especially I was struggling a lot with the thought of privilege. Everything would piss me off. … I just felt like everyone else was more privileged than I was,” he shared.

But through the course of the semester, he found that “Facing You, Facing Me” helped him adjust his perspective. “If I didn’t take that class my first semester, maybe I would still be a little angry, and I wouldn’t be open to acknowledging other people’s experiences,” he said. “It allowed me to see that even though some people may have a privilege over me, I have a privilege over people, like my friends who are still incarcerated, or my friends that don’t have the opportunity of being here.”

Despite the ups and downs that have occurred over the past three decades of its existence, despite changing political administrations, despite the changing students who fill those 16 chairs, one element of “Facing You, Facing Me” has remained constant for Stark: its ability to teach and inspire him.

“Thirty-two years, and it’s still the most interesting thing that I get to do,” he shared. “Overall, it’s just a privilege.”

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