Over 1,000 people attend Teach-In to explore difficult dialogue

Meghan McBrady

Throughout its Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Week, Grand Valley State University hosted a variety of speakers, activities and discussions in order to focus on King’s legacy and his fight for an equitable society for all Americans.

Following in King’s footsteps to address social justice issues, the fourth annual Teach-In at GVSU, entitled “Power, Privilege and Difficult Dialogues,” was comprised of liberation-based sessions and was attended by roughly 1,100 participants from the GVSU community Thursday, Jan. 19. This was lower than last year’s attendance by about 350 people. 

Held at the Allendale and Pew Campuses from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., the Teach-In was organized by the University Academic Senate and the student senate. The series of sessions was led by groups of students, faculty and staff members.

Many of the panels and workshops at the Thursday event focused on raising awareness, fostering dialogue and action when breaking down stereotypes of different topics—like race or disability—and developing a better understanding of different cultural identities.

“The theme of the Teach-In aligns with MLK Week so heavily because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work was centered on leveling the power and privilege that was—and still is—heavily unequal,” said Brandon Fitzgerald, student senate vice president for diversity affairs. “Most of his work was also through dialogue with those individuals who held power, as well with those who held none.”

Featuring sessions from sexual assault and rape culture, which aimed to end the misconception that sexual assault is only a woman’s issue, to topics on first-generation college students and the transitional period they may go through in their educational journey, the Teach-In revolved around creating safe, inclusive spaces for each member of the campus community.

Lexie Godfrey, a GVSU sophomore, was part of the “Invisible Disabilities: Looking Beyond What You See” Teach-In session, sponsored by Disability Support Resources (DSR) at GVSU. Godfrey was part of the conversation about navigating campus life with an invisible disability.

Godfrey said speaking at the Teach-In session was wonderful, as it helped her be part of the discussion addressing disability issues on and off campus.

“It feels really good to just spread awareness,” she said. “To even just talk (to) people who don’t even know me—it’s hard to talk about a disability, so I like it, I like speaking about it.”

Other topics at the Teach-In emphasized power and privilege within an academic setting, health disparities within the health services industry, racial and class bias in relation to food insecurity and homelessness in Grand Rapids.

Ella Fritzemeier, the student senate president, who was part of the “Affirming Inclusion at GVSU” session, said with language always changing, a person needs to adapt and listen to other individuals’ experiences in order to develop honest and respectful relationships.

Posing a question to the group session, she asked how one should conduct dialogue when facing oppressive and/or racist comments.

“How do you frame it so that we are learning from one another and they’re validating what you’re saying and you’re validating what they’re saying?” she asked.

In response, Karen Gipson, the chair of the University Academic Senate, who was also a panelist of the session, said, “It takes two people to have a dialogue, normally two.”

“You can’t just decide that ‘okay, I’m going to have a dialogue with this person’ and they’re trying to debate you, so you have to go in knowing that you are both engaged in dialogue.”

The Teach-In gave students the chance to engage and interact with other students, faculty and staff members at GVSU, and the dialogue produced will leave the GVSU community the opportunity to further question and challenge social justice issues and build connections with others.

“You have to be honest (with) what your own beliefs are and hope that the other person is going to be honest with you as well,” Fitzgerald said.