Tackling Tough Topics With Open Conversation

Reason & Respect grew out of SUNY Empire’s unyielding commitment to the free exchange of ideas. As an institution, we have long believed in the power of civil discourse and education to enlighten.

With that in mind, SUNY Empire launched Reason & Respect in 2020, a year fraught with sociopolitical turmoil. The monthly series has since expanded and evolved into a broader forum, one that explores and reflects the diversity of our world.

We encourage our students, faculty, and staff to participate in these gatherings and to lend their voices to the conversation. We invite you to see the programming that has come before and to explore the resources that underlie our commitment to this important initiative. And we urge you to share your ideas for future topics in this series.

As an institution, we also urge every member of our community who is able to do so to exercise their right to vote. The ability to freely elect our leaders is a cornerstone of our nation’s democratic process and a hard-won right that we can never take for granted. Learn more about your options at the New York State Board of Elections.

Listen, Learn, Engage

Learn more about election issues and make your voice heard by getting involved with one of our upcoming programs. 



SUNY Empire State College Officer in Charge Beth Berlin, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Meg Benke, and representatives from across the SUNY Empire community kick off the Reason & Respect initiative with a recommitment to our college values and reflections on how we must continue to embody them moving forward.


Nov. 2, 2020, 2-3 p.m.

According to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 pandemic is also an “infodemic” that is defined by the spread of false and misleading information. The sharing of deceptive and untruthful information during a global pandemic is especially problematic when accurate and reliable content is essential for saving lives. Misinformation and disinformation are amplified by echo chambers, tribalism, and contentious partisan environments that reinforce mistrust and division. On the eve of this historic election and during one of the most challenging years of our lifetimes, how do we rebuild trust based on reason and respect? How do we engage in difficult conversations about critical issues while reexamining fixed mindsets and understanding multiple perspectives?

SUNY Empire Professor Tom Mackey

Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, 7-9 p.m.

Over the next few weeks, people across the US are taking part in the Presidential voting process. This is all occurring in the midst of a global pandemic, heightened racial issues/injustices, and growing civil discord that makes it feel increasingly difficult to find common ground. The goal of this deliberative conversation is to explore and discuss topics related to the election and learn about critical issues. Questions covered will include: How can you separate fact from fiction online? What can we expect in the days and weeks after Nov. 3? How can you handle difficult conversations respectfully?

Nov. 9, 2020, 2-4 p.m.

Ehsan Zaffar, part-time lecturer at SUNY Empire, will discuss issues of civil rights and community engagement raised during the 2020 presidential election, including the campaigns’ outreach to demographically underrepresented communities, failures of polling, and implications of voting trends.

Nov. 12, 2020, 12-1 p.m.

Avoiding difficult conversations can lead to increased stress, emotional distance, and broken relationships. Come learn strategies to approach these conversations with care and share your experiences with others. Facilitator: Rebecca Bonanno, Associate Professor, SUNY Empire.

Nov. 16, 2020, 2-4 p.m.

This panel will focus on how to prepare yourself for potentially difficult conversations with those close to you during the holidays, setting healthy boundaries, staying present in the moment, and managing emotions.

Dec. 14, 2020, 1-3 p.m.

What does it mean to be engaged at work, and how does one engage in an environment that is continually transitioning? To what extent is it important that everyone feels they have a voice, and that they are heard? A panel of faculty, professional and support staff will provide their own responses to these questions, and there will also be an opportunity for the virtual audience to ask their own questions and comment. The conversation will be moderated by Dr. Brad Shuck of the University of Louisville, who is an internationally renowned expert on employee engagement and leadership.


Watch a Recording of the Session

Jan. 19, 2021, 1-3 p.m.

The incoming presidential administration features historic diversity from the top down. Join us for a discussion on how representation at the highest levels of leadership can help change the conversation surrounding socio-political issues that impact underrepresented communities. This event will include presentations from a panel of faculty members and alumni.


Watch a Recording of the Session

Feb. 2, 2021, 6 p.m.

Associate professor of interdisciplinary studies (History & Anthropology), Dr. Rhianna Rogers, will lead a discussion featuring members of the SUNY Empire community, SUNY System, and beyond, examining ways we can find common ground and bring our nation together after a bruising 2020 election cycle.


Watch a Recording of the Session

Feb. 22, 2021, 1-3 p.m.

This discussion will examine conflicting visions of our nation's history, notably within the New York Times' 1619 Project and the Trump administration's 1776 Commission Report, and the consequences those disparate understandings of our past have on our society and future. This conversation takes on heightened importance during Black History Month and will be moderated by SUNY Empire's Chief Diversity Officer Elliott Dawes, while also including panelists Dr. Rhianna Rogers, SUNY Empire associate professor, Dr. Seth Asumah, SUNY Cortland professor, Dr. Jenifer Lee-Gonyea, Mount Saint Mary College associate professor of criminology, and Dr. Brian Jones, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture associate director of education. This is a Microsoft Teams event so space is limited.


Watch a Recording of the Session

March 15, 2021, 1-3 p.m.

The Reason & Respect Speaker Series grew out of SUNY Empire’s dedication to the free exchange of ideas and the uplifting impact of education to bring civility to discussions about the election and the delicate topics surrounding it. In conjunction with the Shirley A. Chisholm Center for Equity Studies, and in celebration of Women’s History Month, March’s Reason & Respect program will explore Shirley Chisholm’s legacy and the lasting impact of her spirit and determination on the political landscape. This roundtable virtual discussion will be moderated by La Tasha Brown, Ph.D., program manager for the Shirley A. Chisholm Center for Equity Studies. The esteemed panel includes the following participants:

Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies and member, Shirley A. Chisholm Center for Equity Studies Advisory Board

Shola Lynch, Director, Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed

Keith Amparado ‘88, Founder and President, KDA Communications, member, Shirley A. Chisholm Center for Equity Studies Advisory Board

Robert Shetterly, artist, “Americans Who Tell the Truth” project


Watch a Recording of the Session

May 10, 2021, 1-3 p.m.
In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, May’s Reason & Respect program features an in-depth interview with Prof. Mae Ngai, '92 Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History at Columbia University and author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Prof. Ngai will be interviewed by Associate Professor Erin S. Young, who teaches Asian American literature at SUNY Empire.

June 7, 2021, 1-3 p.m.

This event has been rescheduled from its original time of April 19 from 1-3 p.m.

The Reason & Respect Speaker Series grew out of SUNY Empire’s dedication to the free exchange of ideas and the uplifting impact of education to bring civility to discussions around delicate topics.

In conjunction with the Center for Autism Inclusivity, and in celebration of World Autism Month, April’s Reason & Respect program will seek to better understand autism, neurodiversity, and the importance of inclusion for all who identify as differently abled from different perspectives.  Panelists will include Michael Gilberg Esq., an autistic self-advocate, Judy Ruiz, the parent of a teenager with autism and Kathleen Marshall, a professional from Anderson Center for Autism who is creating a college readiness program, CollegeAble. 

The presentation will be moderated by Dr. Noor Syed, Founding Director of the Center for Autism Inclusivity (Research, Education, and Services) and assistant professor of applied behavior analysis. In this event, panelists will explore their journey in autism, discuss the importance for increased access in higher education for individuals who identify as neurodiverse, and consider ways higher education and the world at large can implement practices towards equity and inclusivity for individuals with autism.

Watch a Recording of the Session


June 14, 2021, 1-3 p.m.

We are all responsible for ensuring a safe space for those around us. As a member of the community, you want to create an inclusive and engaging space at our college locations, classrooms and workplaces for students and colleagues alike. But are you? In this panel discussion, we explore the ways we can make people feel safe and welcome in their classrooms and offices, and what can happen when we don’t.

The program will feature a panel presentation. Speakers include:

  • Phil Burse, chief operating officer of In Our Own Voices will present on what we can do to ensure an inclusive and engaging space for our students. 
  • Brianna Phillips, ’17 of CAPTAIN will discuss the potential impacts of those in the LGTBQ community who have been isolated, shunned, and abused when they came out to family and friends.          
  • Representatives from SUNY Empire State College’s Student Life and the Office of Human Resources will provide local resources. 

Watch a Recording of the Session


Sept. 20, 2021, 1-3 p.m.

Reason & Respect resumes after a brief reading period hiatus with an interview by Rosalind October, an associate professor in the School for Undergraduate Studies, with artist and SUNY Empire alumnus Raúl Manzano ’05, an assistant professor in the School for Undergraduate Studies. Manzano will talk about the artwork in his virtual exhibit, “Our America! – ¡Nuestra América!” as it relates to Hispanic culture in America. The exhibit will run from September 20 to October 15. The events commemorate National Hispanic Heritage month, which is September 15 to October 15. 

View the Virtual Art Exhibit

View a Recording of the Session


Oct. 18, 1-3 p.m.

Italian immigrants have left a lasting impression on this country, contributing to everything from literature, art, and architecture to politics, industry, and labor. In this panel discussion, scholars will explore the ways in which Italian Americans have shaped our culture and society. They’ll also examine the recent debates around Christopher Columbus and how it has forced Italian Americans to reconsider their perspective on this controversial historical figure and the impact of colonization. 

The panel will be moderated by Anthony Julian Tamburri, Ph.D., dean of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute and distinguished professor of European languages and literature at Queens College. Panelists for this event are Joseph Sciorra, Ph.D., director of Academic and Cultural Programs, and Fred Gardaphe, Ph.D., distinguished professor of English and Italian-American studies, both from the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College; and Marcella Bencivenni, Ph.D., professor of history and coordinator of the Social Sciences Unit at Hostos Community College.

Watch a Recording of this Session


Oct. 19, 6-8 p.m.

The United States is becoming increasingly diverse and more polarized as we struggle to address complex public problems such as immigration, health care, economic inequality, and America’s role in the world (Pew Research Center, 2017). As public trust in our political system waivers, U.S. college campuses are grappling with issues of inclusion, diversity, and freedom of speech (Rainie, Keeter, & Perrin, 2019). As we continue to move forward, we need to consider:

  • Are free speech and an inclusive campus in opposition to each other?  Do we have to give up one to have the other?
  • How do we balance the rights of individuals with the responsibilities of the institution?
  • Is this the campus community we want?  What is the role of the institutional leaders versus individuals in creating or changing campus culture?

Please join SUNY Empire State College students, alumni faculty and staff for this important conversation. Click here to register for the event. A link to the meeting will be sent to you after registration.

Please note: In advance of this Deliberative Conversation, please read the issue guide produced by the National Issues Forum Institute. Click here to access the document.


November 15, 1 to 3 p.m. 
Please join Presidential Fellow for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Frances Boyce on Monday, November 15 from 1 to 3 p.m. as they introduce a poignant conversation about the struggles of an Akwesasne Mohawk within the confines of a Canadian boarding school. SUNY Empire Associate Professor Jeffrey Lambe will speak with Doug George-Kanentijo, co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, the Akwesasne Communications Society Radio CKON, and author of "Iroquois on Fire," about his life, trials, and how they correlate to the experiences of many Native Americans and Indigenous peoples. A question-and-answer session will follow their dialogue.

Watch a Recording of this Session


Free speech rights have never been more vital to our democracy and institutions. Join us as we resume our Reason & Respect speakers series with an important conversation about the constitutional legal framework of the First Amendment and sub-topics, including the intersection of speech and anti-discrimination laws, faculty academic freedom, and issues relating to student and group speech. 

Panelists will include Cara Palumbo-Schrantz, assistant deputy general counsel for the State University of New York; Elise Rosen Puzio, associate campus counsel at the University at Albany; Will Versfelt, associate campus counsel at Downstate Health Sciences University; and Adam Haney, assistant deputy general counsel and campus counsel to SUNY Empire State College.

1-3 p.m.

Officer in Charge Nathan Gonyea and Presidential Fellow for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Frances Boyce invite you to attend a discussion on the true history of slavery in New York state. The event features William Seraile, professor emeritus at Lehman College and will be moderated by David Fullard, SUNY Empire State College visiting associate professor and coordinator for the Black Male Initiative. Their conversation will examine the history of slavery in New York state, including sites that are historically significant but are unmarked or recognized, as well as the role of Manumission Society and discriminatory treatment following emancipation in terms of public accommodations, employment and voting rights.

Samuel Caldwell, chief diversity officer and associate vice president at the University at Albany will lead a discussion on implicit bias, focusing on how the biases individuals hold toward various dimensions of diversity (gender, gender identity, race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and more) impact how we engage with others in work and social settings.

The session will focus on neurodiversity in the workplace and will include an overview of the benefits of neurodiversity to job seekers and employers, systems and supports to increase numbers of neurodiverse employees in the workplace, and the role of higher education in this initiative. Autistic or neurodiverse self-advocates and professionals in these areas will participate in a panel discussion related to the current state of employment for autistic and neurodiverse job seekers/employees and ways to improve outcomes. The session will close with an opportunity for attendees to ask questions of the panelists.

In this month’s Reason & Respect conversation, mental health professionals and a person directly impacted by the mental health system will discuss concerns about safety, empathy, and justice in community responses to mental health crises. Panelists will draw on their personal and professional experiences to explore alternative models for crisis response. SUNY Empire student Em Wasserman Vaianella, NY Certified Peer Specialist, and Rebecca Bonanno, Student Mental Health Faculty Fellow, will be included among the panelists.

June 27, 1 – 3 p.m.

Reason and Respect: Without Shame: The Transgender Experience

Please join Officer in Charge Nathan Gonyea on Monday, June 27, as he welcomes Connelly Akstens, Ph.D., a long-time faculty member and mentor at SUNY Empire. Akstens will read excerpts from her memoir, Without Shame: Learning to be Me. She will discuss her journey as a transgender person and invite participants to ask questions. Akstens has taught at SUNY Empire for 24 years on subjects as diverse as gender studies, literature, music, and film.

From the preface of her book:

“For most of my life, I lived the shadow of shame. From the age of three or four, I was perplexed about whether I should be a boy or a girl. When I was fifty-five, I decided to change that…the past two decades have been a process of coming out of hiding, letting myself be known and leaving shame behind. The process has led me to write this book.” Read more about Connelly Akstens.

Sept. 26, 1-2:30 p.m.

Building Prosperous and Healthy Communities: Contributions of Hispanics/LatinX to Science and Public Health

Reason & Respect resumes with a panel recognizing and celebrating the contributions of Hispanics/LatinX to science. We’ve benefited from the many contributions of Hispanic scientists working in labs across the country to help fight COVID-19 and prevent environmental diseases. In this panel discussion, three scholars will share how their research, which includes studies of lung function, the impact of race and ethnic differences on physical activity and sedentary behaviors, and the use of digital health technologies, help advance public health and improve living standards. They’ll also discuss the benefits that intersectional identities bring to their work.

The event commemorates National Hispanic Heritage month, which is September 15 to October 15.

Oct. 19, 3-4 p.m.

Reason and Respect: Exploring the Layers: The Intersection of LGBTQiA+ and Other Identities

In conjunction with SUNY Schenectady Community College, and in celebration of LGBTQ History Month, October’s Reason and Respect will seek to better understand the vital role that intersectionality plays in the fight for LGBTQiA+ justice and the importance of rallying together to foster community and drive change.

Join Interim Chief Diversity Officers Audi Matias of SUNY Empire State College and Alicia Richardson of SUNY Schenectady County Community College in a discussion with panelists from both institutions. The panel will include SUNY Empire student Em Vainella and Sandra Pérez ’17, executive director of NYC Pride.

The Reason and Respect Speaker Series was launched at the end of 2020. The monthly series grew out of SUNY Empire’s dedication to the free exchange of ideas and the belief in the uplifting impact of education to bring civility to discussions around delicate topics.

Nov. 21, 1-2 p.m.

A Conversation about Indigenous Land Acknowledgements: Their Meaning and Significance

A growing number of higher education institutions are acknowledging that their land once belonged to Indigenous peoples. Land acknowledgments are an effort to redress the past, make amends for the present, and shape the future of a location as it relates to Indigenous peoples. Even so, these statements are too often crafted without reflecting on the region’s history and why the acknowledgement matters.

Please join Executive Director Joseph Bruchac and Language Director Jesse Bruchac (both Abenaki) of the Ndakinna Education Center in Greenfield Center, NY as they guide us in a conversation about the meaning and importance of acknowledging and honoring Indigenous people who have inhabited our lands, now and in the past. This event commemorates National Native American Heritage month.

The Reason and Respect Speaker series grew out of SUNY Empire’s dedication to the free exchange of ideas and the uplifting power of education to enlighten. The monthly series explores and reflects the diversity of our world.

Feb. 8, 1-2 p.m.

David Shakes '85 presents: Becoming Frederick Douglass and A Look at His Enduring Legacy

The presentation will include a historical overview of the life of Frederick Douglass and highlight the significant events that helped shape his life. In addition, we will examine his impact as an international trailblazer for freedom. The event commemorates Black History Month.

Shakes is a long-time resident of Rochester. He has worked with numerous theater groups in the Rochester community as an actor, director, guest artist, and producer. He is also an interpreter of major historical figures such as Langston Hughes, William Wells Brown, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Frederick Douglass.

Shakes received a B.S. from SUNY Empire State and an MSW from Syracuse University's School of Social Work. He is a retired Rochester City School District social worker.

Reason & Respect is guided by the following SUNY Empire commitments:

Critical reflective inquiry that encourages active engagement in the local and global community

Promoting social justice and a sustainable world through responsiveness to human and social circumstances

Ensuring a healthy democracy that recognizes and respects diversity in all its forms

Fostering respectful, creative and vibrant learning environments for students, faculty and staff

Read our full Mission, Vision, and Commitments Statement