What’s working and what’s ‘evolving’ for the the fourth annual KSUnite

Event speakers lined up at the back of the stage before the third annual KSUnite rally started on Nov. 6, 2019. (Abigail Compton | Collegian Media Group)

Following suggestions from students and faculty, Bryan Samuel, chief diversity officer, said the KSUnite planning committee is working to create more educational opportunities in diversity and inclusion in 2020.

“KSUnite is an evolving institutional initiative,” Samuel said. “[Diversity and inclusion] issues will probably outlive most of us — there will always be some opportunities for improvement.”

While the first KSUnite was in response to racially-charged issues and tensions in the Manhattan community three years ago, both Samuel and Jansen Penny, student body president and senior in industrial engineering, said the event has become a “proactive” measure, not a reactive one.

“We’re good at the introductory level already,” Penny said. “It’s time to step it up.”

The SPIRIT program, a Department of Justice program that focuses on resolving racial conflicts in local government and schools, facilitated discussions between university students, faculty and staff. During those conversations, improvements to KSUnite was a key topic.

The main suggestion that emerged from the SPIRIT program, Samuel said, is the possibility of bringing in “professional diversity and inclusion speakers” to address the Kansas State community at KSUnite. One concern for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, he said, is the “varying degrees of readiness for certain speakers” that participants come into KSUnite with.

He said content provided by professional diversity and inclusion speakers may be appropriate for only some audiences.

“If you [bring in a professional speaker], and the audience isn’t able to internalize or receive the message, then you have a real probability of derailing this apparatus that is working for us,” Samuel said. “It’s a very delicate situation. Diversity and inclusion is often that way.”

In response to this challenge, Samuel said the planning committee is considering a format that would involve speakers of various levels of expertise on diversity and inclusion, as well as breakout sessions to facilitate discussion.

“We have to do better about splitting people up and providing some of those in-depth conversations for people who are further along in understanding the continuum of diversity and inclusion,” Penny said. “In the same token, having some more introductory level conversations is also necessary for many students.”

Samuel said that while the planning committee is working to make sure the student suggestion of bringing in outside speakers is honored, this particular suggestion is “challenging to the KSUnite formula as it currently exists,” one that relies on students and faculty hearing from their peers.

Geneva Fink, junior in human development and family sciences, said she hopes K-State students will continue to be featured at KSUnite events in the future.

“The most impactful parts of the KSUnites that I’ve been to are always the student speakers,” Fink said. “It’s really eye-opening to see what people you sit in class with everyday go through that you might not even know about.”

Samuel said he hopes to include both students and professional speakers in upcoming events if possible.

“We want to show value and appreciation for [student] recommendations without giving away the cultural stamp that KSUnite was founded on,” he said.

The ultimate goal, Penny said, is to create a format that allows participants with varying levels of experience with these topics to leave feeling like they learned something.

Samuel said he and the rest of the planning committee have been encouraged by the positive response KSUnite has received since its first year.

Analyzing the 2020 University Climate Survey, Samuel said approximately 48 percent of students reported KSUnite as “the [program] that had the most positive impact on climate for them at K-State.”

“We’re making some good strides,” Samuel said. “KSUnite is doing what it was intended to do.”

Penny said despite concerns about funding, the committee is “working diligently to find opportunities” for students and faculty to walk away from KSUnite better equipped to deal with issues surrounding diversity and inclusion.

The date of KSUnite 2020 will be announced at the end of this month.