To help kick off Diversity Week, Dr. Donald Guy Generals led the College community in a wide-ranging discussion about the impact of diversity on our lives and our nation on April 6 at the fourth Fireside Chat of the academic year.
Students, faculty, and staff gathered at the event at the Winnet Student Life Building Coffeehouse to share their thoughts and reflections on diversity. Since November, Dr. Generals has been holding Fireside Chats to provide the College community an opportunity to read about present and past societal issues and articulate their thoughts, beliefs and experiences. Past Fireside Chats explored Hispanic culture and life, African American history and culture, and the historical accomplishments of women.
“Encouraging diversity throughout the Community College of Philadelphia community is more than a goal. It’s a shared mindset and commitment,” Dr. Generals wrote in his invitation to the fourth chat.
The dialogue opened with a discussion on two books—one, the 1956 classic novel, Giovanni’s Room by African American writer James Baldwin, and the other, the 2007 memoir Infidel by Somali-Dutch activist and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
For Dr. Generals, Giovanni’s Room “was one of the consummate expressions of the issues of diversity. It cut across cultural, racial and sexual lines.” He drew parallels between the protagonist in Giovanni’s Room, a white American ex-soldier in Paris who feels conflicted about his sexuality, and Baldwin, an expatriate who struggled with his identity as a gay black man and left the United States to escape the sting of racism.
Dr. Generals noted that as a writer in the 1950s and 1960s, Baldwin shared similar struggles with another gay black man of that era, Bayard Rustin. Rustin was the civil rights activist who was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington but did not receive public credit for his role. Both Baldwin and Rustin, Dr. Generals said, were marginalized not just by the larger white society, but also by their fellow African Americans for their sexual identity.
The Harlem Renaissance shaped Baldwin’s views of diversity and his development as an artist and activist, Dr. Generals shared. African American writers, musicians, and artists of the Renaissance, he noted, expressed racial pride, incorporated jazz and blues into their work, and broke down racial barriers through their work.
Switching gears to present-day activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Dr. Generals briefly traced Ali’s life—her life growing up in a fundamentalist Islamic household in Somalia, her escape to the Netherlands from a forced marriage, and finally, her subsequent rise to the Dutch Congress. Faced with death threats, Ali moved to the United States and is now a prominent critic of fundamentalist Islamic views of women.
One student posed a provocative question to Dr. Generals on whether fundamentalism is a reaction against the pressure to assimilate into the American melting pot.
“For me, we’re a tossed salad, not a melting pot. For me, it’s jazz,” he answered. “Each person has an opportunity to solo, but the foundation of their performance is laid with their group. So I think our strength is in our diversity, and that diversity can be coalesced into a commonality that we all appreciate, understand, value, and celebrate our differences.”
In addition to the Fireside Chat, Diversity Week featured events ranging from interactive workshops and trainings to panel discussions, films, and performances. Other program highlights included:
- A keynote address by Angela Giampolo, founder of Philadelphia’s LGBT law blog and resource directory, www.phillygaylawyer.com;
- Documentary screenings of “Storied Streets,” about the struggles of the homeless and formerly homeless, and “The History of 20G,” about the oldest Latino gang in Pennsylvania;
- A performance by Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus; and,
- Panel discussions featuring members of the Philadelphia-based LGBTQ Attic Youth Center and students of the Veterans Resource Center.