Panel Discussion Yields Fruitful Dialogue on Diversity in Higher Education

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Pictured: Michele Des Verney Redwine shares some closing remarks at last week's diversity panel discussion

The first step in any recovery process is to admit to a problem. To that end, last week’s panel discussion hosted at Florida Studio Theatre and produced by Suncoast Black Arts Collaborative (SBAC) gave an assemblage of students and school leadership an opportunity to reflect on where the region stands in its pursuit of greater equity in higher education, particularly as it relates to the arts. And for many in the panel, the event served as an opportunity to admit that the road to equity is winding.

Comprised of four students, four school presidents and four school administrators, “The Black Experience in the Arts in Higher Education'' panel discussion was led by Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton, program director for USF Sarasota-Manatee’s PAInT program, which champions the integration of arts in educational curriculums. Dr. Davis-Cotton’s questions centered on some of the obstacles to better equity and also gave many, especially the students, an opportunity to speak to their own experiences as Black students in the arts.

Some of the evening's most impactful moments came from the college presidents who were present. Dr. Larry Thompson of Ringling College shared some of the success his school has found in championing diversity with its galleries and exhibitions programming, but he was also candid in sharing some stark statistics about his school’s diversity. “We simply do not have as diverse a student body as I would like to see,” he says, “roughly 18% of our student body are people of color and only 3% are Black.” He cited cost as a major contributing factor and spoke about some of the plans currently in place to help alleviate that obstacle for students of color.

“I was very proud of the honesty I saw on stage,” says SBAC founder Michele Des Verney Redwine. “That kind of honesty can be problematic sometimes, but I always tell school leaders to stand tall and do what you need to do.” 

But for Redwine, the evening was not without its surprises, even as someone who has spent an entire career trying to lift disadvantaged populations. “I was a little shocked to learn that USF [Sarasota-Manatee] has no board members of color,” says Redwine, “but, again, I was proud of Dr. Holbrook for being willing to be so honest and that she saw it as a problem.”

Still, when it comes to diversity, Redwine hopes the panel discussion leads to more than just talk. “I’ve been at this for a long time, and I know firsthand that change takes work,” Redwine says, “but I’m very optimistic based on what I heard from everyone on stage that there’s real commitment.” And much of that commitment will be ushered in by SBAC. Beginning next year, the organization will begin a strategic partnership with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation to implement some of what Redwine calls her “Syllabus of Color.” “I’m at a point in my life where I’m looking for real, lasting change,” she says, “and I think with events like this or with our ‘Visions in Black’ exhibition at Art Center next year, I’m seeing that change happen.”

Strategic partnership for future community conversations / panels 2022 is with The Community Foundation of Sarasota County.  The 2021 panels have been sponsored by the CFSC. The Gulf Coast Foundation sponsored the 2022 VISIONS IN BLACK exhibition. The Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation sponsored the SYLLABUS of COLOR project. 

Pictured: Michele Des Verney Redwine shares some closing remarks at last week's diversity panel discussion

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