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Annual National Conference on Race, Ethnicity held virtually; continues to highlight OU's dedication to inclusivity

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A logo for the OU National Conference on Race and Ethnicity. 

What was once an OU-based conference has expanded into the leading national forum on race and ethnicity in higher education. The 33rd Annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education recently took place online and reaffirmed OU's commitment to diversity and inclusion in higher education.

OU's Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies created the conference in 1988 to combat a growing number of racist incidents in higher education. Since then, the conference has become an annual occurrence, offering lectures from keynote speakers, student scholars and caucus groups to help improve racial and ethnic relations on campus, according to the conference’s history statement.  

"We have major workshops. We have all-day institutes, keynote addresses (and) research presentations. We have a new film track that we started, (and) we sometimes have theater, live theater, related to social justice issues," Belinda Biscoe, a senior associate vice president for OU Outreach/College of Continuing Education, said. "These sessions focus on campus inclusion, race relations and other issues affecting underserved and traditionally underrepresented groups on our campuses." 

Biscoe said she firmly believes conferences like this effectively heighten social awareness in higher education and creates environments where incidents related to race and ethnicity are less likely to happen. 

"We break down those silos and really get to know people whose worlds are really different from ours, and we do that first by listening and getting to understand those who may not be like us. It continues to make us all better." Biscoe said. 

Over the years, OU has experienced multiple racist incidents despite being home to NCORE, including multiple professors using the N-word last year — which prompted a sit-in from OU’s Black Emergency Response Team — and racist incidents within the disbanded SAE fraternity.

Meta G. Carstarphen, a past webinar host for NCORE and an OU journalism professor, said the conference's style works because it makes tough conversations about diversity and inclusion more palatable to campuses. 

"You've come back from a situation where you can say, well, I talked to someone at so and so university, and this is what they did, and this is how it worked," Carstarphen said. "And then we can compare it with our setting and try to make those adjustments. So I think it's important." 

Carstarphen said she hosted a webinar surrounding her thoughts on how to teach diversity using media and how to engage students in conversations over diversity effectively. This was related to an approach she presented in her application to become the director for the new Gateway to Belonging at OU general education course. Adrienne Carter-Sowell, an associate head of diversity, equity and inclusion in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University, received the position.

This year’s conference ended a month after Gov. Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1775 in May 2021, which prohibits public universities from teaching on certain gender and diversity theories. OU developed a “First-Year Experience” suite of courses after HB 1775 passed, giving students an option to take one of three classes, including the Gateway to Belonging course, Global Perspectives and Engagement, and Ethical Leadership Development. 

Although NCORE is not mandatory training for students or professors, it is unknown how this bill could impact its overall goal of increasing diversity and inclusivity on campus. 

Jane Irungu, OU associate provost of inclusive excellence, said NCORE broadened its reach as a conference as it has expanded. Organizations such as the Peace Corps and Gates Millennium scholars have become two of NCORE's largest participating groups.

Irungu said the conference is not solely focused on race and ethnicity in higher education this year. The program broadened its reach to address race, ethnicity and its intersections beyond higher education, while also promoting civil discourse on a plethora of related issues. 

"I do believe that conferences like NCORE will remain relevant for these reasons. We just still have a lot of work to do in the diversity, equity and inclusion space,” Biscoe said. “This is because of our history and the challenges of stepping up, and knowing that there's a lot to do, a lot of healing still has to occur." 

For the past two years, the conference has taken place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2022 conference will take place in Portland, Oregon, but it will also have a new additional online attendance option improving the conference’s accessibility and fulfilling the attendees’ needs, Biscoe and Irungu said.

Biscoe and Irungu said they believe the conference has grown as a program since its inception over 33 years ago and they hope to continue improving the program as they adapt to a new era of heightened social awareness. 

"I think the interest in learning about issues is growing, and we are here to provide that platform as a resource," Irungu said. 

Biscoe agreed with a statement from OU President Joseph Harroz regarding the conference’s important role, which is to “support OU's commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice in higher education.” She said  there is much work that needs to be done to achieve equity for all, and the affected communities cannot do it on their own. 

"People of color need their allies. And this work is too difficult, too complex to be done alone and it is a collaborative joint effort across all groups. It's the only way we're going to solve it. It's everybody's work," Biscoe said. 

Mikaela DeLeon is an incoming journalism junior and a news reporter at The Daily.

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