A Few Students’ Thoughts on DEI Training

The lion dance | Source: IMSA Student Productions

Last semester, the Class of 2023 and Class of 2024 participated in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’s annual DEI training. The juniors and seniors watched different videos covering hard-hitting topics: African-American discrimination and transgender rights respectively. To better understand what students thought of about the programming, The Acronym sat down with Brandon Rogers (’24) and Vikram Karra (’23).

What were your general thoughts on the school’s choice of movie for DEI training this year?

Brandon: “As someone who really values how you can express certain ideas in film, I think that ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is probably one of the best choices they could have chosen to fit the particular information that was trying to be compelled during DEI training. There was like some issues people had with like the subject matter with the movie and how it may not have represented everyone, but I feel like – well, we’re going to talk about that more as the interview goes on, but, overall, I was really impressed that IMSA was able to pull such a hard-hitting movie out as a means of talking about diversity and equity and inclusion in a way that would be very shocking to people.

The film itself was a very beautiful [representation] of cinema and anti-racist education, it’s just how the film was used that, I think, that got DEI training in some hot water, or at least saw some of its aims fall flat. ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is one of, if not the, greatest amalgamations of historical film when it comes to looking at the civil rights movement as it pertains to the world we live in today and there’s nothing that tops it’s level of scope and intrusiveness and, just nuance – I don’t think there’s anything outside of things that have been written by the leaders themselves that trump what that movie was able to deliver, honestly.”

Vikram: “[The T Word] in general, was pretty engaging, more so than the ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ movie just because it targeted a specific community and it really expanded on that community and gave shared experiences which was a great difference in the movies that kind of just had to do with the describing. Like, here: the story was about the specific people in the marginalized group, giving their experiences and sharing what they had to go through, what kind of challenges they faced and stuff like that. I think that describing a community like that is a lot more effective and also a lot more engaging for the audience – at least, it was a lot more engaging for me – being able to hear the stories from specific people. Just, hearing it from those people rather than hearing it from a narrative was something I preferred. It was pretty engaging. The only tradeoff was that because it was such a specific community, it didn’t really talk about the other targeted groups in LGBTQIA+, but that was the only tradeoff, and it makes sense that if you’re referring specifically to the trans community then you’re leaving out the other groups… so, yeah. It was still pretty engaging.”

How would you describe your peers’ experience with DEI training, based on what you saw?

Brandon: “I would think back to being in the auditorium during one particular scene, which was just an amalgamation of everything that I felt, or at least observed, from just my peers in general. During a clip – an infamous clip – of Rodney King in the 1990s being brutalized and beaten by Los Angeles police during a routine traffic stop; something that has led to the deaths and mutilations of countless innocent black and brown people throughout many of America’s major cities. But during that – just, lucid, footage – I could see some people just laughing, some people just joking with one another, some people completely asleep, some on their phones, some engrossed in a book, and it really encapsulated the feeling I had: that out of everyone in that auditorium, it only felt like a few people actually had the drive or desire to actually watch and engage in what was being shown on screen tactfully, and responsively, in a smart way. Instead it felt like a lot of people in IMSA, or at least the class that was being shown the movie in the auditorium, just would rather tune it out, and I think that’s a microcosm of how race relations and how discussion of race are usually handled between individuals on campus: we push it under the rug, make blanket, cherry-coated statements without actually looking deeper at what we’re doing or what we can change or what we’re doing wrong. But, out of everything that I saw in the auditorium, it was that showing of the Rodney King footage that really stuck with me, and I think that it’s really gonna stick with me for a while. 

Disgusting is a very apt word to describe at least my personal feelings while looking at the faces of other people in the auditorium. For the amount of times I have heard people preach that we are an inclusive community that strives and prides itself for being a shining beacon on a hill in terms of inclusivity, for there to be people who blatantly ignore the history and real experiences of people who suffered and died and were brutalized under systems of oppressions and discrimination, it kind of robbed the wolf of it’s sheep’s clothing, in a sense. It was finally apparent to me, and people like me, that IMSA– as much as it wants to say that it’s an institution that wants to fight prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry – fails to create a student body that, at its core, is committed to being anti-racist. Instead, it created a student body that is ready to use diversity in co-op to sayings and phrases (that have meant power to marginalized groups) as a means to gain this social or political clout in the student body, in a sense. It’s appalling and disgusting when you look at it as a person who uses those words as a rallying cry to your own voice. And to see such empty [. . . ]statements coming from the student body is something that, after that film and showing – to see how blatantly unresponsive people were – makes me honestly feel disappointed.”

Vikram: “It seemed like it was a hit or miss for me; I remember, going into it, my expectations weren’t too high because, y’know, when there’s mandatory training and everyone has to attend there’s not really much of an incentive. The second hour, when they had the movie playing, that was the most engaging part of training – I noticed this for everyone else as well; a lot of people seemed to be focused on the movie. But I feel like, for the first hour with the speaker presenting online, and, y’know, the final 30 minutes with the conversation, it didn’t really attract as much engagement or attention, at least, in my opinion. So, really, the only highlight I saw from this was the movie specifically. I wish that when they marketed training as having a speaker – I thought it was going to be a live speaker in front of us, but it was someone on Zoom. And I feel like that different dynamic wasn’t as engaging as I had hoped for.”

Do you think that DEI training made an impact on your peers? 

Brandon: “No. No. I think that DEI training is something that needs to be reformed, but that’s different. I think what really stuck, for anyone who had a role in DEI training or preparing DEI training, is that, at its very core, much of the student body does not care about actively addressing and confronting the experiences and the negative experiences of other groups unless they themselves are able to be centered in the discussion, which is something that resonated within the entire junior class, when I would hear people say ‘Of course DEI training is all about Black people. They didn’t mention Latino people or Asian people,’ and it really showcased how, as a student body, we can’t fight bias and prejudice for other people unless you somehow benefit from it, or somehow get your voice centered in a discussion that should have those who are pertinent – a discussion [should] have their voices centered in it instead. 

It’s a double-edged sword really, but oftentimes it’s forgotten that fighting against discrimination and hate against one group pretty necessarily creates a foundation to fight against hate for all people. We can’t build a society or a community of people who all love one another if we’re worried or not that someone else isn’t going to center us in that discussion, or give us the chance to speak on our own issues. It’s honestly kind of disappointing and disheartening to hear people – who I consider peers – not being able to actively address or talk about experiences that go on outside of communities they’re in without being uncomfortable to confront what other people are going through. And it seems as though there is a wall for most people that prevents them addressing the issues and history that comes from other groups when there is a willingness and eagerness – and rightfully so – to talk about your own community’s history of violence and discrimination and systemic prejudice that has been built against you. But, it seems as though no one can have a two track mind and consider what other people can go through.”

Vikram: “I think it definitely made an impact, I don’t know how lasting; I think the point of the conversation after the movie was to give that lasting impact and sort of, y’know, make us think about it more than just simply listening. So if they were able to change that format to make more people participate because, what I noticed – in our room specifically – 2 people dominated the conversation, which is fine, but some people simply don’t know enough about what they’re talking about. Even with an hour of training, which was the speaker and the movie – that’s still not enough information to actively discuss comfortably. So again, you can have that part of the training be strong with a good movie and a good speaker but, that last portion, where you’re really interacting and reflecting on what you just listened to, I think that has to be more engaging in a way. The problem with that, is that I’m not too sure how you’d make that more engaging to promote that impact. So, I feel like it definitely had an impact, but I’m not too sure how long that impact will last.”

Why do you think we have DEI training for juniors and seniors but not the sophomores? 

Brandon: “I think that DEI training is a time where everybody has to come together forcefully, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Because, in my mind, if it wasn’t by mandate or decree, nobody would try to openly and actively talk about such issues, talk to people about their experiences unless being forced into the open to do so. It’s important to say “I’m comfortable,” because I think that many, many people seem uncomfortable discussing, or even participating, about what was in the movie. The reason why we don’t have DEI training for sophomores is because we want them to grow as IMSA students and build connections that cross barriers first, and then shine a light on how the IMSA community– the people you become friends with, the people who you begin to know, the friends that you hang out with all the time, whatever strong connections you find – has to deal with discussion and dealing with the experiences that your peers and friends have gone through. I think that DEI training happens with juniors and seniors because you don’t want to go through training with a bunch of… strangers, basically.

For the majority of the sophomore class, up until parts of the second semester, a lot of people are still strangers with one another, and it takes a lot of time to build meaningful connections with people on campus, and by the end of sophomore year, you aren’t a stranger anymore. So you’re like: ‘I know them, I can say them by name, I recognize that they are in some of my classes, they are amazing speakers’ or ‘They have really good things to talk about but, oh… I didn’t know that this was going on in their community, I didn’t know that they had these thoughts about these things going on in their community, and I should listen.’” 

Vikram: “Honestly, I’m not too sure, I think… as a senior, getting DEI training is kind of… not surprising. As seniors, you understand the IMSA dynamic, how they’re trying to promote leadership and equity, and that’s kind of the standard that other schools might not be meeting just yet. So maybe, for incoming sophomores, that’s a very big step, because the topics are very sensitive, and for high schoolers that have had little to no engagement with topics like this yet, this is a pretty big step. I think another reason is sophomores have programs like Navigation and LEAD to an extent, so that might be, like, I don’t know what they do in those programming sessions – maybe they have those kinds of conversations – but I just think it’s one step too far for sophomores. That being said, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be some sort of training for them. I definitely think that there should be some sort of training. Especially because juniors and seniors are forced to sit there for 3 hours and go through the mandatory programming, then that should definitely be applied to the rest of the IMSA community. Whatever way that happens though, I’m not sure, but there definitely should be some sort of programming for sophomores too. And these topics are definitely good to be addressed early just so that, y’know, people get used to these topics earlier on and slowly get more comfortable with discussion.”

While DEI training may seem boring to some, it’s important to remember that IMSA conducts these trainings for a reason. Transgender rights and African-American discrimination are pressing issues, and while it may not affect your life, others hold these issues close to their heart. By listening to these issues and confronting them instead of turning our backs on uncomfortable topics, we can stop hate and discrimination in our community, one person at a time.

About the Author

Ashwin Nair
I'm Ashwin Nair, a current senior at IMSA from Carol Stream, IL. I'm the Acronym's Managing Editor, and if you want to catch me in 05B wing with my friends doing whatever.

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