September 26, 2010 — The University of Virginia took what President Teresa Sullivan called the "first step toward building a more caring community" through Friday's Day of Dialogue.
It was a day dedicated to expressions of mourning, connection and hope and to the exchange of ideas, thoughts and feelings through discussions and the arts. More than 1,500 members of the University community had registered to participate.
After Sullivan's opening remarks in a packed Old Cabell Hall Auditorium, students, administrators, faculty and staff members met in small groups for facilitated and confidential discussions starting from the question, "Am I my brother's/sister's keeper?" They shared lunch in the McIntire Amphitheatre, accompanied by music, poetry readings and dance performances, and they checked out a resource fair held on the lower Lawn.
They gathered for the afternoon session in different small groups and discussed the question, "Are we a caring community?"
In closing remarks, Michael Suarez, an English professor and Jesuit priest, said he hoped the day marked "a season of grace."
"I hope we can rise together to become our best selves," he said, asking the participants to consider what the legacies of the day would be.
Sullivan: A Day for Questions, Not Conclusions
Sullivan had not yet started her new job as U.Va. president when fourth-year student Yeardley Love was killed in May, allegedly at the hands of another student. Even from a distance, she said it was heartbreaking.
Over the summer, Sullivan and a group of students merged their ideas for a fall event that would pick up "where we left off last May." She enlisted a group of faculty members and administrators to plan events.
"The inspiration for this day came from student leaders – students who were advocates for exploring the linked issues of responsibility and community," Sullivan said in her opening remarks.
Students formed the Let's Get Grounded initiative. They described their intentions and further activities at the end of the day.
Sullivan acknowledged that the topics to be discussed during the concurrent, small-group dialogues would be difficult, and encouraged participants to respect one another. She asked them not only to recognize that people might be in different stages of grief, but also to "embrace the idea that human resilience is sometimes greatly underestimated."
She cautioned participants that it would not be a time for reaching a grand conclusion.
"Today we give voice to our mourning and grief for the suffering and death that have occurred here in Charlottesville, and that continues to occur in every corner of the world," she said.
"At the same time, we want to channel our grief into energy – energy we can use to begin the work of building a stronger, more caring community."
Responses from Participants
Faculty members facilitated the confidential sessions, and several characterized the discussions as productive.
One said the session made her realize how seldom people get together to talk about things that might be hurtful, painful or uncomfortable. Participants said they appreciated the chance to talk with others at the University they wouldn't typically talk to, about things they wouldn't typically talk about.
"Talk is productive action," one graduate architecture student said. "Academic life presents challenges that are often about individual experiences and responsibility, whereas this day is a meaningful opportunity, a chance for considering communal responsibility and a shared sense of identity."
"I think it is commendable for Teresa Sullivan to make the commitment," said Yasminca Wilson, who graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in anthropology and volunteers at the Women's Center. "There is a lot of work that has to be done and I applaud her, but violence has become a part of our culture."
She said the dialogue is important. "This can get the students talking and that is important, as long as they are aware of what they are capable of doing."
The Women's Center was one of 28 U.Va. and community service groups represented at the resource fair, offering information about an array of services, from counseling to disaster responsiveness to personal safety to employee rights.
Officers from the University Police Department handed out safety whistles and durable plastic cards with emergency telephone numbers, as well as literature on dating, walking and running safety, drinking and dealing with an armed assault.
Kelly Near, who works at the Health Sciences Library and is a committee member for the Coalition on Eating Disorders and Exercise Concerns, tended a display that sought to educate students on body image. She said students were also interested in literature about how to help friends who may have eating disorders.
Near said she would like to see the dialogues and the resource fair becom an annual event.
At the end of the day, a student from the Let's Get Grounded initiative echoed that idea and said, "We were able to start the discussion, to begin to talk about the issues."
"A lot of people care about the principles brought out today," another student said. Many people are insecure about intervening in someone else's life, even if something bad might be happening, but the day showed individuals they don't have to act alone, she said, adding that resources and support systems are being made more available.
"The choice to intervene is the right choice," she said.
Besides holding the Day of Dialogue, the Let's Get Grounded initiative has already begun to offer training about bystander behavior and intervention – how to get third parties to act to prevent or bring an end to violence. The group has reached about 500 students so far, member Sharon Zanti said.
The campaign calls for people "to recognize actions that threaten our community and opportunities to foster caring and trust, react to behaviors that threaten the values and ideals of our community and respect others with care and concern for their happiness and well-being," according to the group's handout.
Will Bane, another student member describing the initiative, said to the audience at the closing remarks, "We are asking you to take a leap of faith that what we're doing will make a difference."
Michael Suarez: Choose Hope and Caring
Closing the day's events in Old Cabell Hall Auditorium, English professor Michael Suarez, director of U.Va.'s Rare Book School, eloquently returned to the theme of questioning.
"We're used to getting it right, to finding answers – but not today. Today is more complicated and, I would argue, more precious than that," said Suarez, also a Jesuit priest.
"I think each one of us today experienced a combination of hope and difficulty."
He addressed both the opportunities for reflection and obstacles the University faces in aiming to become a more caring community.
The key to realizing this goal, Suarez said, is a change of perspective.
He asked the audience rhetorically: "What if we were to understand our time together as a community not as about success, but about excellence?" He encouraged the University community to focus less on competition and more on cooperation and communal bonds to honor each other.
"There are limitations, things we cannot change, things we cannot control, plenty we cannot fix. It is sad to stand before you today and say that there are things in our common past together for which there is and never will be any adequate form of redress," he said.
His final message was optimistic. He acknowledged what he had already seen from participants: earnestness, great good will and the desire to build that "more caring community."
Like musicians who look at and listen to each other as they play a beautiful or experimental composition, "Hundreds and hundreds of people will have to commit thousands and thousands" of acts of attending to each other for the task.
"Be alive to hope. I ardently hope that this day is the beginning of a season of grace for us," he said. "A time when we recognize, re-think and re-vision what we might be to each other."
"I found his speech very engaging and thought-provoking," fourth-year English major Jennifer Raha said. "I feel inspired to become more involved in the community."
Arts for Community Healing and Continuing Dialogue
Art and architecture professor Sanda Iliescu conceived a public art project, "Lines of Darkness and Light," to set a tone and provide a visual backdrop for the day's events. For the first part of the project, Iliescu draped the 10 Rotunda columns on the Lawn side in black translucent fabric for the week leading up to the Day of Dialogue.
The white, classical columns are symbols of the University community and in classical architecture suggest optimism, soaring up to the sky, Iliescu said. To drape them with a dark veil symbolizes a sense of darkness and mournfulness.
"As a sign of collective mourning, they will bring people together in a shared experience of human grief and loss," she said.
After the day of community introspection and dialogue, the columns were unveiled, so that "through contrast, the gleaming, luminous columns will move us more," she said.
Engineering School computer science major Seth Kaye said the draping of the columns "gives an unsettling vibe on a usually inspirational place. I hope people get the message and change their attitudes to be less hateful."
In another part of the project, Day of Dialogue participants were invited to write their reflections of the events that happened over the past year and their hopes for the future and place them in 10 boxes on the south end of the Lawn. The responses will be kept for one year, and Iliescu plans to use the material as inspiration to create a mural, tapestry or other work of public art during the coming months. She also hopes others will find inspiration in the responses.
Iliescu said the idea that the project would live beyond the one day of reflection and continue the healing over time appealed to her. "I wanted this to be a beginning. I like the idea of a continuing, ongoing dialogue," she said.
McIntire Amphitheatre provided another space for engaging the power of art through poetry, dance and music to reflect the universality of shared grief and healing. At mid-day, participants enjoyed box lunches while various University groups performed, including the Faculty/Student Jazz Combo, the U.Va. African Music and Dance Ensemble and the University Chamber Singers.
Students and faculty read poems about grief and dying that students in the College of Arts & Sciences' Creative Writing Program suggested. Professor Deborah Nystrom, who organized the readings, commented on the power of poetry to heal and connect us. "Poetry uses the human voice to make people real to one another," she said.
Moving in the Right Direction
Sullivan concluded the Day of Dialogue by thanking students, faculty and staff members for their contribution and attendance. She said that facilitators will soon have a debriefing, and follow-up plans will be developed.
"I'm grateful to all of you for your candor and compassion," she said. "The honesty of today's dialogue is a sign we are moving in the right direction."
She encouraged everyone to make the commitment to continue the dialogue, so that someday the answer to the discussion questions will be a resounding "yes."