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Strategic plan calls for 'national model' in diversity leadership

From the June 16, 2008, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

Changes in programming and facilities in the works for Fields Center


Carl Fields, for whom Princeton's Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, is named, wrote in 1968, "The creation of a large cadre of men and women, black and white, with the ability to plan together, work together and understand together can only be accomplished if there is a total kind of commitment on the part of the education institutions to promote this level of leadership."

Those closest to the Fields Center are working to renew its commitment to create that kind of understanding. An advisory board of students, faculty, staff and alumni, formed in January 2007, issued a draft strategic plan earlier this year on how to reshape the center. Although not the sole motivation for the needs assessment, the center's planned move into a new facility in 2009 helped provoke the action.

"The building is certainly a wonderful opportunity in terms of expanding the space so that we can expand the program," said Makeba Clay, director of the Fields Center. "But that's not the reason for the changes. National transformations are happening around these centers, many of which began as black cultural centers or pan-Asian centers. They are starting to become more inclusive and more multicultural in their emphasis. It's because the students who are coming to us are increasingly more diverse themselves.

"Even those campuses that still have black cultural centers often have multicultural centers as well," she added. "We see ourselves evolving as a multicultural center, one that strives to embody, as the plan says, the intercultural experience as well as the cross-cultural."

While still being circulated among constituency groups for additional input, the plan indicates that the focus is to develop "a national model that empowers members of our campus community to take an active role in learning about themselves and others in order that they acquire the requisite competencies to lead in a diverse world." Future efforts will center on four areas: empowerment, understanding, leadership and social justice.

Clay said that she gets many questions from students and alumni about whom the center serves.

"Alumni will ask, 'Is this place now becoming so broad that it's not going to focus on issues of people of color?'" she said. "The answer is no. Our original mission was and still is twofold. Addressing interracial and cross-cultural matters, both in light of social justice concerns, is at the heart of what we do."

Clay explained that part of the goal is to create an "incubator of learning" at the center -- for all people. "The center is central to Princeton's mission at large," she said. "How can you be of service to others and be engaged with others if you can't understand them -- if you don't take time to learn and grow and challenge yourself, challenge your assumptions?"

"We want students to feel like this is a learning space," she added. "It's a place where you take risks. Students at Princeton are used to thinking that they have to know all the answers. We're saying that this is a place where you can come and try out ideas. Try out your assumptions, learn something new by talking to someone you wouldn't otherwise talk to."

The Fields Center currently sponsors training and educational programs, service projects and experiential learning opportunities intended to increase knowledge and respect across lines of race, religion, culture and political ideology. It collaborates with a wide variety of campus partners, including the Davis International Center, Women's Center, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center; affinity-based student groups such as the Black Student Union, Latino Coalition and Asian American Students Association; the residential colleges; the Office of Religious Life; and academic units across disciplines.

Programs range from a weekly Social Issues Roundtable with scholars and activists to a film series called Reel Issues: Real Change. Speakers present talks on issues as diverse as identity and politics, art as a catalyst for social change, and the intersection of religion and culture. Students, faculty and staff come together once a month for a Women of Color Luncheon. And freshmen gather for dinner to discuss personal definitions and experiences of diversity.

The Fields Center is involved with orientation programs such as Thriving at Princeton and Reflections on Diversity, and helps provide leadership and coordination for ethnic and cultural heritage theme months that are open to all campus and community members. Cultural immersion activities range from sponsoring world music performances on campus to traveling off campus to attend conferences on issues of race, identity and social justice.

Janet Dickerson, vice president for campus life, said, "We have encouraged our students to engage with diversity and to apply their knowledge on campus and all over the world. I commend the board for their vision of creating opportunities for enhanced dialogue and leadership."

The advisory board also sees the center as a gathering space -- a destination for social interaction in the way that the eating clubs are and the student-run Campus Club is expected to be when it opens this fall. The Fields Center's new facility will provide rooms for the larger events it traditionally has hosted, such as performances and dances, for smaller gatherings sponsored by student organizations and for informal places to hang out between classes.

The center is seeking support through "Aspire," the University's $1.75 billion fundraising campaign. Goals for the future include expanding leadership and mentoring initiatives for incoming students, creating a diversity peer education program in the residential colleges, setting up a speakers bureau of students who will give talks and training sessions in the community, and establishing an annual student leaders recognition program. The center's plans also include bringing nationally recognized figures to campus to present public lectures and lead educational workshops; offering financial support for students to attend national conferences; and develop residencies for accomplished professionals to spend a semester or a year on campus.

"Students are excited about the future of the Fields Center," said junior Elisabeth Hutton, one of the students who served on the advisory board that crafted the strategic plan. "The expansion of the wonderful programming that was already in place will be a great improvement for the center. The center's work will be able to reach so many more students. The leadership opportunities the center offers will be that much more enriching and rewarding than they already were. The potential to bring nationally recognized figures to campus is especially promising."

A summary of the draft strategic plan will be available on the center's new website in early August. It will continue to be circulated among constituency groups this fall and finalized by the end of December.

Founded in 1971 as the Third World Center, the center has evolved and its mission has expanded. It was renamed in 2002 to reflect its broader role and honor the late Carl Fields, who came to Princeton in 1964 and became the first African American dean in the Ivy League in 1968. An advocate for underrepresented students, faculty and staff, and a mentor to African American students, Fields provided the conceptual guidance that resulted in the establishment of the Third World Center and other programs that both acknowledged and celebrated the importance of diversity on campus.

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