Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has hired six students whose jobs as "dialogue facilitators" will involve intervening in conversations among students in dining halls and common rooms to encourage discussion of such social justice issues as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability and social class.
"If there's a teachable moment, we'll take it," said assistant dean of student affairs Arig Girgrah, who runs the program. "A lot of community building happens around food and dining."
She gave the example of a conversation about a gay character on television as a good example of such a moment.
"It is all about creating opportunities to dialogue and reflect on issues of social identity," Ms. Girgrah said. "This is not about preaching. It's not about advice giving. It's about hearing where students are at."
Jason Laker, dean of student affairs, said their activities will also include formal discussion sessions, perhaps after controversial incidents in residence, and open discussions of topical books or movies.
"They're not disciplinarians. They're called facilitators for a reason," he said, adding that such a program is of particular value now that so much communication by young people happens over the Internet.
"It's not trying to stifle something. It's trying to foster something," he said. "We're not trying to be parental."
Like dons, who serve as student authorities in residence, the six facilitators will receive full room and board and a stipend for the full-year commitment, and will receive regular training.
Ms. Girgrah said they represent a broad spectrum of social identities and are all upper-year or graduate students who live in university residences – a small minority at a school where most students move into rental housing after their first year. Ms. Girgrah said this status will give the facilitators "a little bit of credibility and perhaps some respect."
Daniel Hayward, a 46-year-old Master's of Divinity student, applied to be a facilitator believing the role would offer him an opportunity to connect with many different students.
"It's an opportunity to interact with lots of people, hear their stories, about the experiences they've had, hear the questions they're asking," he said in an interview yesterday. "It's not like we roam around the halls looking for people having conversations. If somebody is yelling something across the dining hall that's a racial slur, yes, we will intervene in that situation.
"We are trained to interrupt behaviour in a non-blameful and non-judgmental manner, so it's not like we're pulling someone aside and reprimanding them about their behaviour. It is honestly trying to get to the root of what they're trying to say - seeing if that can be said in a different manner."
Touting the Intergroup Dialogue Program as "unique among Canadian universities," but modelled on programs in the United States, an administration newsletter says it will promote "a lasting experience of inclusive community and shared humanity."
It is just one of many recent efforts to promote diversity – such as gender-neutral washrooms, prayer space, and halal and kosher food service – at a school that is still smarting from a report on systemic racism two years ago that criticized its "culture of whiteness." The editorial board of the student newspaper, the Queen's Journal, acknowledged the good intentions of this latest effort, but was skeptical of a program that "seems to be an inadequate, lackluster attempt to deal with social inequalities."
"It's unlikely six facilitators in a crowd of thousands will have much impact on fostering dialogue in residences," they write, adding that the facilitators could face "hostility" from students who feel they have been "cornered" or had their privacy violated.