"Building Community in Times of Social Unrest" Deliberative Conversation

Dr. Rhianna Rogers, mentor, SUNY Empire State College

December 12, 2019

Building Community in Times of Social Unrest Deliberative Conversation

R. Rogers Framing Discussion – How can we build community in times of unrest?

Scholars and university administrators have contemplated how to make higher education more open, accessible, and inclusive to a wider population of potential students (i.e., across underrepresented populations - race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, visible and invisible disabilities, among others). In recent years, the push to graduate a more diverse population has taken on new urgency, as the United States (US) is experiencing a dramatic shift in cultural demographics and faces international pressures to remain competitive in the global economy (Lederman, 2009). More recent political and cultural tensions in the recent Obama/Trump eras, including the rise of extremist perspectives in liberal and conservative populations, has increased the need for more cross-cultural competencies across diverse US peoples. Given the tensions lead up to the US upcoming Presidential election; political, cultural, and social strife throughout the world, having the ability to understand ways to develop community across cultural lines is not only necessary, but a critical skill in the 21st century. Arguably, a universal need increased the need for more cross-cultural competencies across diverse US peoples. It is with these tensions in mind, that I believe that developing intercultural competencies are no longer an option, but a fundamental part of engaging others in respectful dialogue.

That said, in order to understand the impacts of socio-cultural unrest in our lives, we must first define where the term(s) originate and how they are defined. Social unrest can be defined as a collective dissatisfaction with a particular event, activity or outcome. It tends to result in behaviors that disrupt the typical social order of life. Civil unrest, a related term typically used by law enforcement, is term used to describe disruptive situations — a riot, protest, or strike — caused by a group of people. Both terms are related but differ based on the perspective you take on the topic.

Social/Civil unrest are often fueled by disagreements, sometimes around politics; racial, gender or income inequality; discrimination; or health care issues. While many of these gatherings begin peacefully, but they can quickly turn violent if not handles appropriately by all involved parties. As witnessed on multiple media outlets in the US and abroad, Social/Civil unrest can lead to arrests, injuries and destruction of the community and nearby businesses.

Generally speaking, there are three levels of Social/Civil unrest:

  1. The lowest level of civil unrest is when people turn on their own neighborhoods. This type of unrest is spontaneous and localized, primarily impacting those who live, work, or travel in the immediate area.
  2. The next level of unrest is focused on a single area where protestors deliberately target a business district, facility, transportation system, or an organization to impose maximum disruption. This type of unrest occurred during the 99% and #BlackLivesMatter movements. This level of protest requires planning and organization to choose a target and deliberately disrupt the normalcy of daily life and business. Many groups are impacted.
  3. The final level of civil unrest causes a disruption at a regional or state level, affecting everyone in the region. This also can expand to a national or even international level. This example can be seen in the 2019 Lebanon WhatsApp Demonstrations. After the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016, thousands of individuals protested in 25 cities across the United States. While many of these were peaceful, unrest broke out in Oakland, Calif. and Portland, Ore. In Portland, the peaceful assembly quickly turned destructive as the crowd grew and angry protestors took to the streets. In the end, property and business damages were estimated to cost over $1 million and more than 100 people were arrested.

While these events may seem isolated, they are not. Protests continue to happen across the country, impacting communities and businesses along the way. Once social unrest manifests itself it can trigger further consequences and lead to secondary risks outside of the area in which the unrest originally occurred. In a globalized society unrest can act as trigger of transboundary ramifications, small local events (e.g. the #MeToo movement and its spread across the world) can cause "snowball effects" world-wide.

Case in point, in November 2019, Syracuse University was the focal point of a “hate-speech controversy” that led to national and international media attention. Although the campus had already experienced widely publicized racist incidents in recent years, university officials responded to the new issues mostly by being quiet. News reports indicated that the University went so far as to encourage targeted students not to speak out about what had happened to them publically. The news spread anyway, touching off two weeks of protests that electrified Syracuse and turned it into a resonant symbol of the alienation that many students of color feel at elite universities.

The protests drew widespread support, including from the Syracuse College Republicans, Black, Latino, Asian-American, Jewish, Muslim, Indigenous and international students, who declared, “This campus needs reform” (Randle, 2019.) The purpose of this conversation was to determine how SUNY Empire State College could proactively contribute to this conversation and offer campus-based solutions.

Framing Materials and Discussion Outcomes

As part of this conversation, we asked students to review the 2017 document Key Considerations for Community Leaders Facing Civil Unrest: Effective Problem-Solving Strategies That Have Been Used in Other Communities by Divided Community Project by The Ohio State University-Moritz College of Law. You can read the document here: https://cdn.ymaws.com/ncbp.org/resource/resmgr/2017_midyear_meeting/Key-Considerations-January-2.pdf

When framing this conversation asked students to answer the following questions:

Question #1: What types of behaviors should we exhibit on campus? What academic programming should we create in college sets to help mitigate issues of social unrest in society? How can we help when instances of social unrest occur within the college and/or affect colleagues within the college?

Question #2: What practices do you employ when discussing controversial social, political, religions and other “hot-button” topics? Do these communication strategies differ for you across and within different environments (work, school, family, friends, and strangers)?

Question #3: What strategies can we employ to better equip the ESC community to critically think about social unrest in civically minded citizens?

Summary of General Comments:

  • Many institutions of higher learning appear to be engaging a “post-racist” attitude, yet the notion that these institutions are “post-racist” is a fallacy.  The first step is acknowledging that the racism exists.
  • Institutions need to be aware that many opinions exist on campus, liberal to conservative, and all that exists in between. We cannot assume that one group dominates…that only silences the other groups on campus.
  • Higher Education should teach/train people about effective ways to speak across cultural lines. Critical thinking is a skill that is not stressed enough today. In order to get away from discussions about “fake news,” which media outlet is “right,” what perspectives are “important,” we need to refocus on conversations like “how do we jointly rebuild cross-cultural communities in this country and respectful create meaning dialogues that draw us together instead of divide?”
  • Leaders must be listeners in this case, not speakers.
  • “If it’s for us, without us, then it’s not about us.”  Those who are most affected need to be central to any discussion.
  • Diversity should not come as a surprise to anyone; we’ve been a diverse nation since our inception. This truth needs to be better incorporated into mainstream conversations.
  • Empathy can be a preventative measure
  • Much has been distorted about what it means to be American - some by the hate of others, some by the pain absorbed or dished out upon others. 
  • We should work to create spaces were ALL feel comfortable (“safe space”, “politics”, “religion”, can be a trigger words for some) can we find/create a campus space that is open to respectful dialogue from all perspectives and aware of people’s apprehension to speak candidly?

Quotes from Students - Possible Solutions:

Q2: What practices do you employ when discussing controversial social, political, religions and other “hot-button” topics? Do these communication strategies differ for you across and within different environments (work, school, family, friends, and strangers)?

Graduate Student A Answer: One of the questions that perhaps we did go into great details is how do we get people comfortable talking about these issues in the first place. It is one thing to create the safe space, but some people are conditioned not to talk about issues of race/religion/politics. There were three people in my breakout session and only one of us (not I) stated they were "very comfortable" talking about these issues with just about anyone. One other person (not I) stated they try to stay away from these conversations completely. I generally limit these conversations to close family. When I am doing "the work" I tend to be candid with close colleagues who are like minded but am more reserved with folks whom I know have opposing viewpoints. Not the same type of conversation.

Q2: What practices do you employ when discussing controversial social, political, religions and other topics?

Undergraduate Student B Answer: My process is a five-step thing. 

  1. Listen to the others before speaking. 
  2. Learn about the issues brought forth. 
  3. Weigh the options suggested, and formulate givens based upon inside and outside knowledge. 
  4. Provide a scenario to the situation presented that is either a bargaining between the sides, or a new perspective that the others hadn't considered. 
  5. State the case with verifiable facts and plot the solution to resolve the conflicts. 

This doesn't mean that it works for every person, but the process is the same, whether it takes years to surface a solution, or a few seconds where these 5 jumble all in a second. 


Considering changing demographics, increase voices from populations of color, and the polarization of political views in the US, those in higher education need to reconsider some of the ways they think and talk about diverse people. There is a collective power that emerges when education allows multicultural voices to be heard. As this project illustrated, collecting data to inform the development of academic programming is an effective way to encourage multicultural awareness on campus. Doing so offers learning opportunities that support an atmosphere of inclusivity and gives voice to all populations. The key to making these conversations successful across campuses is its use of participatory action research and ethnographic data from diverse cultures. Developing safe spaces, seeking and giving the voices of all involved a chance to be heard, and creating action-based responses to issues that arise will lead to not only success on campuses but will leave an impact on the community and society as a whole. By influencing the expectations through educational programming, we can seek to break the cycle of cultural misunderstandings, solidifying the need for projects and to continue growing and expanding the community feel on campus.

As institutions of higher education, it is our responsibility to prepare our students to be successful graduates and culturally competent members of the 21st century globalized community and workforce. It is when faculty, administrators, and staff take time to reflect on their own worldviews that we, educational leaders, can fully address the issues that are facing populations today. By doing so, institutions can raise the educational attainment of diverse student populations and increase their institutional retention rates; ultimately empowering more individuals to impact cultural views in various communities. This process may be uncomfortable for some but will lead to acceptance and cross-cultural understanding for others. By creating healthy spaces for dialogue, individuals or groups who feel isolated or marginalized, have more opportunities to voice their needs and wants.

To learn more strategies to engage across cultures, please review these videos:

References Cited

Howard, T. (2018). Civil Unrest and Employees: When Community Concerns Become Workplace Challenges. Retrieved from https://continuityinsights.com/civil-unrest-and-employees-when-community-concerns-become-workplace-challenges/

Randel, A. (2019). Racial Slurs and the 15 Days that Shook Syracuse. NY Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/27/nyregion/syracuse-university-racism.html

Rogers, R. C. (2018). The Buffalo Project Webpage. SUNY Empire State College. Retrieved

from http://rrogers.sunyempirefaculty.net/the-buffalo-project-an-ethnographic-study-of-western-new-york/