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Talks Highlight Research in Diversity, Inclusivity

Ursinus students and faculty participated in five-to-seven-minute “lightning talks” surrounding their own research areas during the college’s inaugural MLK Week.

“They are meant to come at you fast and really make you think,” said Terrence Williams, presidential adviser for inclusion and equity and assistant dean of students, as he kicked off the first of three rounds of talks.

The talks took place in the new Institute for Inclusion and Equity in Wismer Center in front of an audience of faculty, staff and students, who were encouraged to listen, learn and ask questions to begin a dialogue about the range of research on the Ursinus campus surrounding these issues.

The speakers included:

Kelly Sorensen, a professor of philosophy and religious studies and associate dean of the college, who spoke of the horrific Tuskegee Experiments, a decades-long human trial that targeted black men. The United States Public Health Service partnered with Tuskegee University in 1932 to research syphilis. The researchers promised 600 black men, 399 of whom had syphilis, free medical care for being a part of the study. Originally, the study was supposed to last six months, but despite a loss of funding, continued for 40 years. As the experiment continued on, it became widely known that penicillin was an effective treatment for syphilis, however, despite the opportunity for those with syphilis to be treated by the researchers, the participants were never given the drug. It was not until 1972 that the experiments ended, leaving the victims and their families to finally learn about what had been happening.

Roger Florka, an associate professor of philosophy, spoke of the challenges of teaching race in the classroom. He discussed “innocent” vs. “culpable” ignorance and how the phrase, “I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing” can seem harmless, but instead “puts the onus on students of color in the class to not be offended while seemingly clearing the other student of all wrong-doing.”

Angela Bey ’19 introduced the film The Watermelon Woman, starring and directed by Cheryl Dunye. The film followed a young black lesbian named Cheryl who worked in a video store in Philadelphia. The film explores Cheryl’s life as a filmmaker searching for information for a documentary about an actress only credited as “The Watermelon Woman” in a movie. The Watermelon Woman was the first feature film in the United States that was directed by a gay black woman. Bey said that the film was inspirational and that, “It’s important to uplift marginalized voices,” adding “It encourages you to listen and to look and to move.”

Vanessa Volpe, assistant professor of psychology, discussed upcoming projects in the Ursinus Health Experiences Across the Lifespan (HEAL) Lab. Volpe introduced the members of the lab and some upcoming projects including an interdisciplinary research study “Learning to Map Spaces of Belonging on Campus” that examines student experiences of identity and belonging on campus.

Bryanna Jones ’19 presented information on her research, “The Impact of Special Interest (SPINT) Housing on Students of Color.” In the research, Jones asks black students and alumni what about academic readiness, financial aid, social support and a positive racial climate and how it relates to academic success. She interviewed alumni who answered questions about community, identity and safety. Her findings pointed to Cloake Hall, a main street SPINT house for African American and Africana Studies, as a space where black students were able to spend time with individuals who had similar experiences to them and find social support.

Mark Schneider, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college, spoke of the continuing program, “Cultivating Resilience: Conversations About and Across Difference at Ursinus,” which seeks to stress the importance of speaking to one another and gaining insight into our differences.

Tricia Lott, an assistant professor of African American and Africana studies, presented excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and discussed incarceration in the north, particularly in Philadelphia. Her presentation broke down the myth that northern cities were more accepting of African Americans than those in the south, quoting “As long as you are south of the border of Canada, you are south.”

Holly Hubbs, a professor of music and Karen Clemente, a professor of dance, shared a peek into their research projects and collaborative jazz history course. They played a clip of the Nicholas brothers from Philadelphia whose pure dance talent shone on the screen.

Alice Leppert, assistant professor of media and communication studies, presented on the lack of diversity in American filmmaking. She began by projecting a chart featuring American film directors broken down by gender and ethnicity, overwhelmingly dominated by white men, and dispelled a myth that “black films would not sell overseas.” –By Mary Lobo ’15