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Caroline Wallis for Spectator

Panelists at the first event of the Awakening Our Democracy series, which explores topics on race, ethnicity, and social justice.

The Office of University Life is introducing a monthly panel series, "Awakening Our Democracy," that will examine race, ethnicity, disparities, and injustice through discussions on a different topic each month.

The launch of this initiative—which also includes a digital forum and smaller academic events—comes as the newly created office grows its staff and presence on campus, following a semester spent organizing the sexual respect initiative and the arts option exhibition.

"We are looking to have lively, engaging conversations with everyone in the University community and especially students," Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg told Spectator in an interview. Awakening Our Democracy "came from an interest in having more University-level events where there is space to talk about the issues of our time—ones that affect the external world and interact with people at Columbia."

The inaugural event in the series, called "The 'American' Dream, Immigration and Belonging," was held earlier this month and featured sociology professor Van Tran, TED fellow Negin Farsad, SIPA '04, and Cesar Vargas, the co-director of the immigration advocacy group Dream Action Coalition. The panel was moderated by Duarte Geraldino, a national correspondent for Al Jazeera America.

During the discussion, Tran said that Awakening Our Democracy aligns with the goal of creating a space where students from every identity and background feel like they are welcome.

"I want all of us to create a culture of inclusion at Columbia, such that we create spaces for conversations that are meaningful and engaging, that we're not afraid of topics that could be potentially divisive, that we're thoughtful in how we engage with each other every day on our campus," Tran said.

The next event in the series—a panel titled "Ferguson, Charleston and Beyond" scheduled for  Nov. 5—will examine racial tensions in the U.S. within the context of #BlackLivesMatter and this summer's removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

"They [the topics] are very broad, and they're really intended to be," Goldberg said. "We want students from all different schools, who might know a lot and might know nothing about the issues."

Events planned for the spring semester will focus on the relationship between faith and politics, gender and sexuality, and environmental issues.

Goldberg said that all themes are developed by the Office of University Life through consultation with students, grappling with the issues central to belonging and participating in today's world.

As with October's immigration panel, future panels will likely be moderated by a journalist or Columbia professor and include an artist, an activist, and a member of the University faculty.

Goldberg emphasized that the exploration of each topic is meant to go beyond the panel discussion itself, with the conversation continuing both in online forums and in smaller academic spin-off events.

"The goal is to create space for conversation for students across schools, both in person in the forums and digitally on the website," Goldberg said.

The new Office of University Life website contains a section called "Ideas & Action," where any student, faculty member, or administrator is able to contribute a blog post surrounding a relevant issue.

Earlier this month, Law lecturer and Transformative Justice Coalition President Barbara Arnwine wrote a post introducing the event series and providing historical and political context for the issue of immigration.

"Democracy, government by the people, also in its broadest sense implies a nation committed to the equal rights and enjoyments by all of its residents in all of its many societal, political, and economic institutions," Arnwine, who serves as an adviser to the Awakening Our Democracy series, wrote. "Throughout its history, the United States of America has struggled with the issue of immigration."

The website also includes suggested readings and viewings from each panelist. Selections for October, for instance, include a New York City government report on "the newest New Yorkers" and "The Muslims Are Coming," a film by Farsad about comedians fighting Islamophobia.

Goldberg also said that she is working with faculty members to host the smaller spin-off events.

She added that she would be excited to see students develop their own spin-off events, though the office has yet to develop guidelines surrounding how to plan these programs.

"We could have these sessions every day of the week, and we wouldn't be able to cover all of the interesting topics," Goldberg said. "The idea is that this is an ongoing series and space."

Kayla Levy and Erin Mizraki contributed reporting.

teo.armus@columbiaspectator.com | @teoarmus

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Professor Van Tran as Professor Van Tram. Spectator regrets the error.

Office of University Life Suzanne Goldberg Awakening Our Democracy
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