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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Is Our Wisconsin doing its job from behind a screen?

When I asked people how they remember their Our Wisconsin experiences, the answers I got were a mixed bag. My friend who transferred to UW-Madison last year and completed the mandatory online module didn’t remember the workshop at all. 

Some recall specific activities from the in-person workshop with mixed feelings, such as the one where you step into a circle of people when you identify with an experience, which could draw attention to very personal aspects of your identity.

“People can feel uncomfortable stepping in for [some questions], like questions about if you’re from a working class family or if you’re a member of the LGBT community,” said Adrian Lampron, the chair of ASM.

Others found it extremely meaningful. Amy Yadev, a fourth year UW student from a small town in Wisconsin, is in the latter.

“When I did it as a freshman, it was the third or fourth day after we moved in,” Yadev said. “I really liked the intentions behind it; you could tell, based on the questions they were asking, that the staff wanted us to understand that a lot of us came from different backgrounds and have different identities that affect how we experience the world. I personally had never experienced something like that in high school.”

The next year, in the fall of 2019, Yadev facilitated these workshops. She was drawn to the experience because she felt that these workshops were “needed.” 

“These past years, there’s been a lot of awareness about racism and other systems of oppression,” Yadev said. “I wanted to be a part of something that acknowledged that. As someone who has experienced racism before, I wanted to find a way to be a part of the solution.”

Our Wisconsin brands itself as a “inclusion education program created to raise awareness of the diversity within our student population.” It was launched in the fall of 2017 as an in-person, optional 2.5 hour long workshop, primarily held in residence halls for freshman during the first week after move-in. The workshops included a series of activities and discussions led by students, faculty and staff based around sharing different identities and experiences.

However, Our Wisconsin looked different in the past two years compared to how upperclassmen remember it. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the workshop moved online in the fall of 2020. The university also made it mandatory for all first-year and transfer students, joining the ranks of the two other required online modules for first-year students at UW-Madson, Alcohol Edu and ACTWIse. 

Lampron, after being elected Chair of Equity and Inclusion at ASM in the spring of 2019 and spending most of their time in the role working to make Our Wisconsin required, said, “I think the university only made it mandatory because they wanted to make it look like they were doing something after the death of George Floyd.”

Our Wisconsin was originally created in response to a series of hate crimes in 2016 on campus. At a Bernie Sanders rally in March 2016, a group of students held up a banner with the hashtag #TheRealUW and an image of Bucky Badger dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member. The hashtag was subsequently used on social media platforms including Twitter and Instagram to share stories of hate crimes, bias incidents and microaggressions experienced by students at UW due to their racial and socioeconomic identities.

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One of the demands of the movement #TheRealUW was for the university to provide diversity training in order to reduce the number of these incidents. The following fall, the in-person pilot program for Our Wisconsin was launched, managed by the Office of Education. In the summer of 2020, the Office of Inclusion Education was created and put in charge of the online module for Our Wisconsin.

“We need to re-dedicate ourselves to having an in-person experience to learn about diversity and inclusion,” Lampron said.

Yadev agrees. She said that she hopes that UW-Madison brings the workshop back to an in-person format with COVID-safe measures.

“Especially for topics that heavy, it’s hard to do online,” she added.

Unfortunately, according to Caitlyn LoMonte, the director of the Office of Inclusion Education (OIE), the mandatory portion of Our Wisconsin will continue to be online next fall in order to make it accessible and prioritize the well-being of students during the pandemic. 

However, the OIE is working on putting together additional components to the workshop that are in-person. LoMonte said that the office might work with house fellows to have their freshman floors come to these in-person events.

“What we’re really hoping to change is Our Wisconsin not just being a one-time experience,” said LoMonte.

Lampron is concerned that when the program is non-mandatory, the people who need it most won’t attend. 

So the question remains, why is Our Wisconsin so crucial to have on campus? Will it reduce the number of hate crimes?

According to Yadev, Lampron and LoMonte, the direct effect of Our Wisconsin on reducing bias crimes isn’t possible to measure. Instead, the goal is to bring awareness to the diversity of the student body and create expectations for acting in a way that is inclusive of all students. 

Anjali Subramanian, the Equity and Inclusion Chair of ASM, said she would be happy if students simply came away from the workshop with the understanding that “they have to pronounce people’s names correctly and ask how to pronounce people’s names.”

One of the largest takeaways from these workshops that Yadev saw in her time as an Our Wisconsin facilitator was that not everyone has access to the same resources due to the color of their skin or other factors of their background and life experiences. She said that for some people, that’s not necessarily at the forefront of their minds.

“It’s easy to assume that we all grew up the same way … I learned that people really have different backgrounds,” Yadev said. “Some people came from a different country, or were homeschooled. How people grew up really affects the way they see the world around them. The challenge is, how do we take all those differences and integrate them and celebrate them?”

Yadev refers to the workshop as “planting a seed” for students of awareness of the diversity on campus and for fostering an inclusive campus environment.

“There is no one workshop or training or program that’s going to undo all the systems of power that lead to oppression,” LoMonte said. “I’m hopeful that Our Wisconsin can be an important part of the puzzle to help shift the campus culture.”

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