Our country is in the midst of an examination of diversity and equality that, while not new, has taken on a new tenor and urgency over the last few years. The conversation has been particularly pronounced on campuses, including here in Princeton.
Given that this conversation on inequality and injustice has largely been led by the individuals who are most systematically disadvantaged in our society, my involvement is not what you would typically expect. After all, I am a straight, white, middle-class, conservative male.
I am not among the students most obviously adversely impacted by the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. I have not been subjected to discrimination based on the color of my skin, my sexuality, or my gender. Some conversations I’ve had on topics of diversity with my peers have been difficult for me personally. There are probably many people who have had similar thoughts or believe there is no reason for them to get involved in pushing for constructive changes to how institutions approach diversity and inclusion.
It was understanding how my own identity can sometimes blind me to the realities other people face that convinced me that I have a stake in ensuring that my school is equitable and inclusive for people from marginalized backgrounds. I have a stake in the degree to which the curriculum and faculty at the Woodrow Wilson School reflect diverse voices and prepare students to grapple with today’s complex issues.
To illustrate how I came to that understanding and what motivates me to be involved in such advocacy, let me share a story. A few years ago, I arrived home one evening after dark and told my wife that I wanted to take our young daughter to the playground a short walk away. My wife hesitantly told me she was uncomfortable with that plan. It was dark outside, she said, and the street was deserted. As I opened the door and looked out down the street towards the park, I saw nothing that caused me any concern. It was several moments before I realized that when my wife looked out the door, she saw a very different scene. It had not previously occurred to me that as a tall, fit, white male, I was more-or-less immune to the feeling of vulnerability that troubled my wife at the thought of walking down the street after dark with our toddler. We were having a very different experience with the exact same situation.
I was forcefully reminded not to dismiss my wife’s reaction as incorrect or exaggerated. Her feelings were no less legitimate than mine; they were real and merited thoughtful attention. This experience has helped me gain a new appreciation for the distinct experiences people have as they move through the world with different genders, in different skin-tones, and with different means.
The lesson my wife taught me guides my advocacy on diversity and inclusion issues at the Woodrow Wilson School. There are many instances where my classmates and I have gone through the same situations but had very different experiences. When we look through the doors of Robertson Hall, I cannot see everything about this school the exact same way that they can. But, I can see that things are different for us.
Every day, I move in and out of classrooms and events at an institution that was built for people just like me. Meanwhile, my classmates from marginalized backgrounds must wear as a badge the name of a man who did not believe they had any meaningful contribution to make to society. I cannot imagine the burden the legacy of Woodrow Wilson must be for many of my friends here at the Woodrow Wilson School.
Whether it is in connection to the school’s name or any other issue, just because my classmates have different reactions than me to certain situations does not mean that I can ignore their experiences. They are real and merit thoughtful attention from me and from members of the Wilson School’s administration.
I am also working for improvements in student support and in curriculum and faculty diversity because of the many ways such changes would benefit me and future policy students. I have grown from my exposure to different points of view while studying and organizing advocacy efforts alongside my diverse classmates. This growth will make me a more thoughtful and effective policy professional. I want to continue to reap these benefits and I want future students to have that same chance. I also want to grow from exposure to a more diverse faculty and curricular offerings that better address the dynamic interactions of identity, power, and public policy. While beneficial peer interactions are a part of our academic experience, this aspect of our education should be institutionalized, as well. As our generation takes the reins to lead on the most complex policy problems of our time, it is imperative that we are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to understand intersectional issues, work in diverse communities, and strive for more just, equitable futures for all.
I feel great pride in my school, my classmates, and my community. I am grateful to have been fortunate enough to join this institution. I want to do my part to make it the best that it can be – for all the people who, like me, are privileged to be here. For these reasons, I urge the administration of the Woodrow Wilson School to give thoughtful attention to figuring out how changes can be made. Finally, I urge the members of this community to find a way to be a part of this conversation, even if you feel that you are an unlikely individual to be involved. We will all be asked to lead in a world where being able to see through a diverse set of lenses will be key to solving the complex issues that face us. We all have something at stake.
Matthew Richardson is a second-year Master of Public Affairs student at the Woodrow Wilson School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.