Photo provided by Eimad Houry
A new project has made its way into the heart of Mercer University.
The Seeking Openness, Understanding and Learning (SOUL) Project was started this semester.
“[The project was started] on campus to equip students, faculty and staff with the tools to facilitate intentional discourse on difficult topics,” according to a news article from Mercer University.
The directors of the project include Hannah Vann, associate director of the Research that Reaches Out office, and Dr. Eimad Houry, a professor and chair of the international and global studies department, according to the news article.
Vann said the idea for creating the SOUL project stemmed from the Identity in America series that happened last year.
“The event was an opportunity for people to break up into small groups and, with the lights off, speak frankly about issues relating to racial and ethnic inequalities,” she said in an email. “We had diverse student participation and received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the event, the opportunity to engage different people without fear of judgment and the need for more opportunities like this.”
After the program was created, students who were interested had the chance to go through an application process to participate.
Sophomore Anisah Muhammad was one student who had interest in the program and was accepted after she filled out the application.
“I wanted to do it because, like, I’m passionate about different issues and stuff and I have those conversations with people and so I just wanted to learn how to better have those without getting emotional,” she said. “And I wanted to see what other issues people thought of and how to be more open to other viewpoints and narratives and stuff like that.”
After students were accepted into the program, they attended a training seminar led by Law Professor Teri McMurtry-Chubb.
Muhammad said the training was split into two different days that featured two different types of learning.
“She first showed us these videos and basically she wanted us to answer three questions on each video: Who did you see? Who didn’t you see? and Does it matter?” Muhammad said.
Muhammad said that the videos they watched ranged from Schoolhouse Rock videos about the founding of America to Button Poetry videos about rape culture.
“Some of the Schoolhouse Rock of like the founding of America, they only showed European people coming over,” she said. “They didn’t really go into non-European, non-white people and so that’s why [she asked those questions].”
The second part of the seminar was a situation-based facilitated group discussion.
Muhammad said that there were five different scripts that students could sign up to play a part in.
The scripts ranged from roommates with different religious beliefs, issues with languages and English as a Second Language learners, students of different socioeconomic statuses, patriarchy and gender roles and protests concerning the confederate monuments issue.
Before going through the scripts, Muhammad said they were split into groups to talk about the situations in each one.
“We imagined how we would facilitate the conversation of the people within the script or how to have those types of conversations,” she said.
They then went through the scripts and presented them to the whole group.
“We had to question them and lead [the group] to have an understanding or openness,” she said. “I think for the students that applied, you kind of have to have a certain level of openness to do a project like that.”
Muhammad said that even with a good number of students who participated in the training, everyone seemed to see things similarly.
“We got to talk a little bit afterwards and reflect on our experiences and people said that they now have an understanding of people’s individual narratives and that not everybody’s narrative is your narrative,” she said.
Vann said that communication was a big part of the training because it is important to the project overall.
“We don’t often think about respectful dialogue as a skill, but it is. If we don’t exercise and practice that skill, we won’t get better,” she said. “With the growing divides on ideological lines and our increased control over insulating ourselves against different viewpoints, our engagement with people who think differently or have different values from our own has to be more intentional.”
Muhammad said that the project plans to have a campus-wide event in the spring to get students to participate in a conversation about a specific issue.
She said that this project differs from other campus events, discussions and research because of how it is operated.
“Research and actually doing it are two different things,” she said. “We were actually trained on how to have those types of conversations and so based on our training, we can go and apply it, even in our everyday lives.”
Funding for the SOUL Project was provided by the Fund for Positive Engagement from Campus Compact, according to the Mercer news article.
According to their website,“Campus Compact is a national coalition of 1,000+ colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education. We build democracy through civic education and community development.”
The Fund for Positive Engagement is listed on their website as one of the featured initiatives of the coalition.
“The purpose of the Fund for Positive Engagement is to catalyze experimental responses to challenges arising from this new climate,” according to the Fund’s page on the Campus Compact website.
Mercer was one of the 40 schools to receive the fund and was the only school in Georgia, according to the press release.