Building community through open dialogue

October 24, 2022

In early 2020, the Department of Plant & Microbial Biology (PMB) was exploring how to support faculty, staff, and students as they integrate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) practices and principles into their work. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. 

“We kind of stepped back and said ‘What does our community need right now when everyone is isolated?’” recalled microbiology professor Michi Taga, who chairs PMB’s diversity committee.

Out of those discussions, Taga said the department chose to prioritize internal community-building for students, postdocs, staff, and faculty. PMB diversity committee members began organizing and coordinating a series of Directed Conversations, which let department members engage in structured, community-centered discussions on topics like racial justice and discrimination, belonging, and equity and inclusion.

Organized and held every semester, each Directed Conversation runs for an hour and is led by a panel of PMB members with personal experience relating to the topic. Conversations are open to everyone in the department, and participants are encouraged—though not required—to participate in small group breakouts after the panelists are done speaking. Once the hour is up, Taga holds space for participants to engage in an “extended conversation” and continue their discussion.

Their first Directed Conversation, held in February 2021 via Zoom, featured a panel of faculty, postdocs, and graduate students sharing their experiences navigating academia while raising children. Additional Zoom-based Directed Conversations were held on racism against Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) populations, and power and positionality in academia.

“In the surveys we’ve administered after each conversation people have really appreciated the opportunity to get to listen and share their own thoughts,” Taga said. “There's overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants.”

Diversity committee co-chair Zach Hallberg, a postdoctoral fellow in Taga’s lab, says the committee is exploring ways to continue the positive momentum started by their Directed Conversations as community members return to campus. 

“We are humans and we need connection, but we have to make sure the opportunity to safely listen and be heard—to safely see and be seen—is here for our community,” Hallberg said, stressing the importance of ensuring the spaces they create remain accessible—a central element of DEI work.

Last spring, the department held outdoor and masked events on navigating impostor syndrome and reducing inequities relating to academia’s hidden curriculum—the norms, values, and beliefs conveyed in systems of education. An outdoor workshop on inclusive mentorship was held in September, and committee members are currently planning additional learning opportunities for the semester