The Divinity School’s All School Conference, taking place this past week, focused on the issue of identity, partially in response to a racially charged controversy the school confronted this fall.
During the week-long conference, the Divinity School has been exploring an issue relevant to community life. Dealing with the issue of identity was necessary, organizers said, because of a September incident in which students held a watermelon-eating contest that some community members said evoked painful racial stereotypes.
The conference helps ensure “that the devastating effects of the watermelon incident don’t happen again,” said Delfin Bautista DIV ’10, president of the school’s student council. “I think we’re at a place where we’re extremely cautious of bringing up controversial issues, which is to our detriment.”
Bautista, Associate Dean of Students Dale Peterson and conference co-organizer Denice Kelley DIV ’11 all declined to discuss the specifics of the watermelon affair, saying it was sensitive and could hurt individuals involved. But Peterson and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Emilie Townes wrote an e-mail to the school expressing regret following the incident.
“The contest was a painful reminder of past images and painful stereotypes involving watermelons and African Americans that continue to be used today, and it should not have happened,” Peterson and Townes wrote.
Kelley said the community had trouble discussing the issues of identity brought up by the incident, and she said she hopes this conference will help make the community more comfortable discussing issues of identity with each other in the future.
Identity can be divisive, she said, and so this week was a good way to “talk about identity in a way that acknowledges [each student’s] perspective on it.”
The All School Conference was started 10 years ago when the school was in a difficult period of upheaval, with the campus undergoing renovations. Classes for the week were cancelled, letting students and faculty take time discuss major issues affecting them, Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said.
Since that challenging year, the community has been “a good and healthy one,” and classes still meet during all school conference, Associate Dean of Students Dale Peterson said. Nonetheless, Attridge said the conference remains an opportunity for students to “stand back and look at some issues which may be nagging them but they don’t have time to deal with in day to day life.”
This year’s conference aimed to explore identity in nontraditional ways so that students not only explore identity through their gender, race or other conventional categories. Instead, each day had a theme through which to explore identity, including academics, food, spirituality, and love and sex.
Kelley said that another issue of identity that confronts Divinity School students is the challenge of accommodating students who come from various faiths and cultural backgrounds and learning how to balance concern for one’s own religious community with the many denominations represented at the Divinity School.
During this year’s All School conference, the students stressed the complexity of each of their identities. At a panel concerning spirituality across different denominations on Monday, participants each detailed which denomination of Christianity they identify with, different denominations they have belonged to throughout their lives and how those may have shaped who they are now.
“Students around here are so busy, we do a lot of reflection in the classroom, but not enough outside the classroom,” said Rebecca Lenn DIV ’10, a member of the Community Life Committee, which sponsored the event. The week helps students sit back, reflect on their work here, their purpose and their future plans, she said. She also views the week as a community-building effort between students and staff in informal ways.
The conference organizers collaborated with student groups to plan activities, said Kelley. For example, to explore how academic passions shape students’ identities, Glossolalia, the school’s academic journal, hosted talks for students to present their published works. The goal of these talks was to foster an academic discussion outside the classroom, and to “foster the identity of the students going to the school as academics” said Glossolalia editor Willa Lengyel DIV ’10.