November 13 , 2006
Unity: Tradition that’s more than a month
Each school year, I look forward to the fall and the changing landscape. No longer a solid blanket of monochromatic greens, the trees evolve into a rich canvas of red, yellow, gold, orange and brown. The multicolored palette buoys my spirit as the natural environment transforms.
The fall is also a time when Emory students, staff and faculty work together to plan a series of multi-ethnic, multicultural activities known collectively as Emory’s November Unity Celebration.
Begun in 1991 as Unity Week, the now month-long event celebrates the ever-expanding diversity and rich resources present in our Emory community. The kaleidoscope of programs fosters greater understanding among groups.
The expansion from Unity Week to the month-long November Unity Celebration reflects demographic shifts on the Emory campus. In the mid-1970s, non-white enrollment totaled less than 5 percent of the student body. By 1991 students of color represented 20 percent of the student body. Now, in the fall of 2006, students of color make up over 30 percent of the student body, and international students come from 111 countries.
Such statistics don’t tell the whole story. Within our racial groups, our identities and lives tie to even greater diversity of religions, traditions, values, food, fabric, music, dance and beliefs.
The Unity Planning Committee, a mix of students, staff and faculty, draws upon this mosaic when planning opportunities for cultural exchange — opportunities to share experiences and learn from each other while building bridges of understanding across the Emory community. Unity Celebration stands out as a distinctive Emory tradition that many alumni name as their most treasured memories of Emory.
Those of you who already have taken part know that Unity Celebration events range from fun to experiential to more academic forums. For example, in the Unity Celebration kick-off — Wonderful Wednesday’s outdoor festival at Asbury Circle — hundreds of students and staff crowded together for a new global community of food stands, music and camaraderie. Fingers got sticky with Korean kim bap sushi, Mexican taquitos, Ghanian Jollof rice, Filipino pancit noodles, Chinese dan tat desserts, Persian kabobs and Indian spicy potatoes — all washed down with Indian chai.
AHANA A Capella sang, Black Afrocentric Men stepped and Miracle Marathoners danced. Electric and folk guitars strummed as students painted T-shirts and milled around more than 30 tables with displays attracting new members to campus groups. The result: a bonding of community through communication and cultural exchange.
To promote discussion on more academic topics, this month’s Unity Celebration features an AIDS awareness panel, guest lectures on the Arab world and a screening of “Born into Brothels,” a film about Calcutta’s poverty stricken, prostitution districts. Dr. Troy Duster, past president of the American Sociological Association, will speak on the genome revolution.
Provost Lewis has already facilitated an excellent dialogue on race. He answered questions on Emory’s potential offering of a no-loans aid package to disadvantaged students, bringing race into the curriculum and increasing majority student participation in programs on race and difference.
At another venue, the Unity Coffee Hour cosponsored by ISSP and other Campus Life offices, we asked international scholars what diversity and unity means to them. A pathologist from China volunteered, “Scientists come to Emory from all parts of the world, from all fields, to find the best solution for a medical health problem. This is a model of diversity and unity at work to save lives.”
Communication, whether casual or academic, is the foundation for cross-cultural understanding and positive interactions. However, challenges pop up despite our best intentions to communicate clearly.
A benign case in point: each year the planning committee chooses a catchy, yet meaningful, slogan as a visual promotional tool to be printed on T-shirts and banners. This year, the committee unanimously picked “iRock unity, iRep Emory,” an allusion to the popular iPod campaign: “adding to one’s playlist” and “shuffling” out of a predictable routine to achieve greater enjoyment.
Never during our planning did we anticipate that “iRock unity” would be interpreted as “Iraq unity.” The use of “I rock,” our idiomatic expression, failed to resonate with a number of international students. We thought that the expression would be commonly understood by all, but the slogan (along with our assumption that the popularity of iPods extended across nations) clouded communication.
We hummed along, plugging the unity slogan while actually creating puzzlement. That is, until an international lens placed upon the slogan sensitized us to the nuances that language produces in a global community.
Our intended message was “iRock unity” equals I believe in and support a united community which values all its members; “iRep Emory” equals I represent Emory, an inclusive and unified campus.
As Emory becomes even more diverse and international, the community must continually strive to strengthen communication and seek inclusion of divergent voices. The unappealing alternative is that our cohesive community will lose the strength of a common purpose and splinter into disenfranchised, marginalized and silenced groups.
Unless we promote broader communication and inclusion, we will lose the enrichment that an integrated, interactive community provides. And we will lose an important foundation for a lifetime of successful interpersonal interactions.
To thrive, grow and flourish as a diverse destination university, we each need to work through the temporary discomforts of a changing community as cultures, colors and opinions converge and sometimes clash. We each need to participate in Unity Celebration events and cross boundaries beyond our comfort zones, which can provide unparalleled opportunities for personal growth.
Our convictions may be jostled as we grapple with unfamiliar perspectives and different worldviews. But through that jostling, we gain a greater understanding of how we may peacefully co-exist, and perhaps, gain new insight on what we can do to eradicate problems common to humanity.
All the leaves will have fallen by the end of Unity month, but the lessons learned and attitudes gained through cultural interactions can enrich our current endeavors in our diversity-positive community, while preparing us for our future in a socially and economically integrated world.
Unity is more than a month. It’s a state of mind, being and action. We must think about the legacy we choose to leave and carry from Emory.
For more information, visit www.unitymonth.com.