Menlo College Takes Action on Hate

Menlo College Takes Action on Hate

A message from President Obama resonated with Menlo College Provost Terri Givens when she heard him say in a White House Address, “It’s been a difficult several weeks here in the United States, but the divide that exists is not between races and ethnicities and religions. It is between people who recognize the common humanity of all people and are willing to build institutions to promote that common humanity, and those who do not.”

Inspired by Obama’s opinion, Provost Givens organized Menlo Dialogue: A Common Humanity, a moderated discussion at Menlo College, with several experts who provided background and different perspectives on social issues. Provost Givens said, “we feel it is important that educational institutions like Menlo College reach out to our communities and find ways to work through these difficult issues with an open dialogue.”

Menlo College President Richard Moran referred to “The List,” a term higher education administrators use to describe the many issues that face us today, including race relations, immigration, law enforcement, sexual assault, international separatism, women’s rights, gender discrimination, election concerns, and more. He observed that each issue deserves to be included in the discussion.

A first inclination toward remedy might have been to draw boundaries around each trouble, and to postpone discussing some of them for another time. But drawing boundaries is exactly what we should not do, argued Thomas G. Plante, internationally acclaimed writer and professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. “As we increase fear, people tend to polarize into tribes of us versus them. He used the acronym RRICC, standing for respect, responsibility, integrity, competence, and compassion, explaining that respect and compassion, above all, can help in problem solving.”

Melissa R. Michelson, Professor of Political Science at Menlo College, spoke about the power of using shared identities as members of in-groups to change attitudes. She has a forthcoming co-authored book, with Brian F. Harrison, entitled, Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes about LGBT Rights. The book explores how to have persuasive conversations with people about contentious issues such as marriage equality, transgender rights, and equal rights for members of the LGBT community. Drawing on that research, Michelson said, “If you have a connection with someone, you can have a conversation. We’ve all been told that we shouldn’t talk in polite company about religion or politics, but if we don’t talk about these issues, then nothing’s going to change. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable. We have to be willing to talk.”

Terri E. Givens, Provost and Professor of Political Science at Menlo College, is an expert on global migration, immigration politics, anti-discrimination policy, and populist radical right parties. Givens said, “My research on populism showed me that politicians have done a bad job of allowing people to fall through the cracks. The visceral protest we’re seeing today is reaction to a sense of loss. This reaction was once predominantly seen in the suffering of people of color, but now with Brexit, and cost of living, it affects white people too.”

Lakiba Pittman, Adjunct Professor at Menlo College and Director for the Office of Diversity at Notre Dame de Namur University, began by noting that it’s important to acknowledge that some of the current problems we are having tie directly to a history; that there are roots that must be examined in order to have a viable and relevant strategy to deal with and solve the issues of the day. She researches the efficacy of mindfulness and compassion cultivation training in mitigating trauma, bias, racism and other ‘isms.’ She said, “We have to be mindful of when we’re starting to judge or form bias. A level of compassion can be cultivated.” Her acronym is HERO: honesty, empathy, respect, and open-mindedness.

Bruce Paton, Dean of Business and Academic Affairs at Menlo College, teaches courses on business in society, sustainable business, and business and poverty. His research and work in the community focus on processes for collaboration across differences in skills, perspectives, and values to address social and environmental issues. He noted that Menlo College is stepping up to the plate in recognition of common humanity. “In the past, business schools have been spectators, not part of the discussion. We need to do what we can to make it us and not them and us.” He described how business can play a role in collectively refusing to allow trade in places that restrict human rights.

The audience at Common Humanity was a varied blend of educators, students, parents, and community members. The questions and comments were numerous and insightful. One person lamented that we’re now a culture that requires an acronym to remind us to be respectful and compassionate. Another person suggested that building events with local police could help develop positive attitudes. An African American parent worried about how her children would be treated in her own neighborhood, and a white grandfather worried about the future for his black son-in-law and granddaughter. The audience shared quotes from Dr. Howard Thurman, an influential African American author, educator, and civil rights leader, and James Baldwin, African American essayist, playwright, poet and social critic.

Menlo Park Police Chief Robert Jonsen described the volunteer work his force is doing now with the Boys & Girls Club to acquaint both groups on a personal level. He acknowledged that there is “a lot of room for improvement” and that “if law enforcement doesn’t understand the rule of law, that’s when things go bad.” He described the complexities of the law, which is ever-changing, and the tremendous investment of time that goes into keeping policemen up to date on training. He also emphasized the importance of mutual respect.

The evening discussion ended with a moment of introspection led by Professor Pittman. Professor Pittman said, “Think about what you think and feel and make a commitment to use what you’ve received and learned. Keep this in your soul/spirit. Each of the deaths from recent crimes was a wound on our collective soul and spirit. Every life that dies matters. We must open our eyes with a friendly heart.”

A wall was covered with post-it notes collected by the group with ideas for next steps and further discussion. The crowd departed with a feeling of possibility, uplifted by a quote by Dr. Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

In an opinion piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after the community forum, Provost Givens and Professor Michelson observed that “We must work with our students, colleagues, and community to find common ground in our pursuit of knowledge and understanding. The first step is acknowledging that these issues exist, and not to sweep them under the rug as just a part of our American history.”

They described their motivation as “looking for ways to take action after the targeted deaths of police officers in our country. As educators and mothers, we have tended to approach these issues around race, guns, and policing as history. But racism and hate aren’t just our past, they are our present.” The entire text of the article is available online at