SPARC Recommendations



Javiera Benavente
Director Ethics and the Common Good Project


Dr. Christopher M. Tinson
Associate Professor, Africana Studies and History Critical Social Inquiry

Introduction and Overview

SPARC (Speaking Across Resilient Communities) was a presidential advisory council convened during the AY Fall 2016-Spring 2017 to deepen our shared understanding of the challenges we face as a campus community around issues of communication, conflict and difference around charged political issues, and identify strategies to enhance our community’s capacity to engage with and transform these challenges. The SPARC council was made up of 12 students, staff and faculty, who met regularly throughout the academic year to develop a shared understanding of the issues that surfaced through SPARC activities. Additionally, we engaged the community through campus-wide meetings for faculty and staff, and separate spaces of engagement for students. This report identifies the full range of our approach, our activities, and our recommendations for positively influencing campus climate through critical engagement strategies.

Original Charge

Task Force III (name to be determined by TF Co - Chairs) will engage the Hampshire Campus Community in a deep conversation about the social contract that enables us to live and work together as a community of inquiry, inclusion, justice, and respect.

The Task Force will be jointly chaired by Chris Tinson, associate professor of Africana Studies and history and Javiera Benavente, director of Ethics and the Common Good Project, and will include students, staff, and faculty members. The Task Force will review the community goals and values articulated in Hampshire’s founding documents, important later documents such as the Principles of Discourse developed by President Greg Prince, the current strategic plan, and the student, faculty, and staff handbooks. The Task Force may examine documents from other schools or sources.

The Task Force will plan and implement a variety of opportunities for facilitated campus engagement and learning, and may collaborate with other committees and task forces.

The Task Force will report from time to time on its findings and progress, and will make such recommendations for action to the President as it concludes are necessary to strengthen and heal the community.

Revised Charge

The task force will survey, examine, and embrace a vibrant campus community engaged in dialogue across a range of issue areas and socio-political concerns. We will make recommendations for enhancing effective communication strategies between and throughout classrooms and campus life. Our goal is to utilize the experiences and expertise of the entire campus community to reinvigorate and re-energize students’, faculty, and staff persons’ passion for engaged debate and principled inquiry.

Meeting our Charge

Early on, we realized that we needed to engage the various sectors of our community in these conversations in order to develop a nuanced understanding of how these issues are playing out on our campus. These conversations with a variety of constituents could then inform our recommendations for moving forward. We began these conversations by asking participants the following questions:

  • How are issues of communication and conflict showing up in your work?
  • What resources and supports do you lean on when these issues arise?
  • What resources and support do we need to shift and transform the culture around these issues on campus?

We also thought it was critical to ground our analysis and recommendations in practice. This led us to develop and organize several workshops, interactive presentations, listening sessions and dialogues on communication, conflict resolution, change-making, and facilitation. This approach allowed us to test our ideas about what kinds of conversational technique and critical understanding would be useful in cultivating a less contentious campus environment.  

Over the course of the academic year, we engaged in several large and small impact activities. We met with faculty from all the college’s interdisciplinary schools, members of the Monday Group, the board of trustees, student leaders including residence dvisors, and members of the Staff Advocacy Committee. We facilitated three listening sessions with students in three classes, and offered three "Can We Talk?" interactive presentations for staff and faculty.  We also hosted a community-leader dialogue and workshop for students in the Cultural Center. On a slightly smaller impact, our activities included co-sponsoring several events and workshops that informed and advanced our work, including the Looking Backward, Moving Forward exhibit on Hampshire’s Commitment to Anti-Racism, a six-part Facilitation Training for students, a small “Resilience. Imagination. Community” postcard campaign, and the Changemaker Dialogues, which brought together students, staff and faculty to think about how to better support changemakers on campus.

Council Members *

Javiera Benavente, director, Ethics and the Common Good Program (co-chair); Chris Tinson, associate professor of Africana Studies and History (co-chair), CSI; Mary Bombardier, assistant dean of Community Engagement and director of Community Partnerships for Social Change; Melissa Burch, associate professor of cognitive development, CS; Desta Cantave, Student F15; Megan Dobro, assistant professor of human biology, NS; Marlene Gerber Fried, professor of philosophy, CSI; Laura Greenfield, director of Transformative Speaking Program and faculty associate, CSI; Amy Jordan, associate professor of African American history, CSI; Tony Santacruz, student F15; Mei Ann Teo, assistant professor of theatre, IA; and Maddie Williams, student F15.

* Additionally, we’ve reached out to several recent alumni for their feedback at different stages of our work.

Summary Analysis of Campus Climate

What have we learned? What have we heard from the community?

The campus is divided in a number of ways. There are divisions between students, staff, faculty and administration; divisions between faculty from different schools; divisions among students based on political affiliation, identity, experiences with systems of oppression, power and privilege; and division between staff who work in different areas of the college. These divisions are reinforced by a campus culture of isolation and individualism, and structures that separate us from one another rather than bring us together.  

Building meaningful relationships across difference is an essential first step to addressing the divisions that exist on campus. This is something that many members of our community (from various sectors) recognize and want support with. This is a prerequisite for being able to engage in difficult conversations about charged issues in a way that might lead to transformative outcomes. This kind of connection and relationship building takes time, and needs to be part of an on-going practice in order to contribute to a cultural shift on campus.

While building relationships across difference is an important step, there also needs to be regular opportunities for all members of our community to engage in difficult conversation across difference, and about difficult social issues that live on and impact our campus life. These spaces need the support of trained facilitators who are experienced in holding space for such conversations, providing insight, and offering useful and tested suggestions for moving forward.

Many members of the staff across campus are not always included in the campus intellectual community and are disconnected from students due to the scope of their jobs.  This is especially challenging for non-programmatic staff that work “behind the scenes” such as grounds staff, IT staff, etc. This means that many staff are often “out of the loop” on the political discourse that engages many students and faculty. This also means that staff are often kept from the accountability measures being demanded of the administration. Critical education is what makes Hampshire College a thriving learning community and it is important that all members of our community, including all staff, to be able to participate and engage with this aspect of our community.

In addition, we see situations arise that allow staff and students to be pitted against each other, and for resentment between these groups to fester and build. For example, some staff have come to believe that the budget cuts, which have impacted their workload and working conditions, are the fault of student activism. Over the course of the year, key administrators have made statements attributing low student enrollment (and the College's budget troubles) to student activism; this has created the conditions for staff resentment towards students and student activists, in particular.  

Many students, especially students of color and students from other marginalized communities, are often hurt, angry and in pain as a result of the ways systems of oppression (white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, etc) impact their daily lives and their communities. This is particularly acute when racism and other forms of oppression are held up or perpetuated by individual members of our community and/or the institution. While the College has made a strong commitment to social justice and anti-racism, the institution has a long way to go to in addressing issues of systemic oppression on campus, including being accountable to and implementing past agreements to repair injustices (i.e. Cole Science agreement) and healing from the ways systems of oppression have impacted members of our campus community since the College’s inception.

Through the conversations we’ve had with several different campus we noticed that conversations about specific issues of race, gender, sexuality, and nation were the most difficult to have both inside and outside of the classroom. Among faculty there was an expectation that students in their classes adhere to and indeed appreciate free speech, and allow everyone a voice. Among students the general sense was that students wanted to have the correct analysis and often demanded that those around them agree both inside and outside of the classroom. This led us to devise a concept of Democratic Speech, which to our mind entails the right to speak but demands that the speech be governed by a commitment to advancing social justice. We elaborate this concept in the Spring/Summer (August, 2017) issue of the academic magazine Diversity & Democracy. Here’s an excerpt:

Now more than at any other time in recent history, it is important for campuses to become what we are calling Democratic Speech Environments (DSEs): sites of justice-seeking conversation and discourse. For too long, American higher education has protected a silent power that is based in racial, class, and gender privilege and compounded by institutional inertia. And yet, more marginalized students than ever before are attending college, including students from some of the country’s most economically depressed and racially segregated communities. When they arrive on campus, these students are not empty vessels into which we pour Foucault, Audre Lorde, and W. E. B. Du Bois. They already carry with them a variety of racial, class, and gender antagonisms drawn from their own first-hand experience.

Students expect that the campus will serve as a vital place for them to test out, wrestle with, and analyze the histories and experiences they carry, and hopefully arrive at a deeper sense of self or purpose. The liberal arts campus has never been the equitable or neutral space necessary to meet these expectations. We believe that the relationships and community-building practices students encounter, the active communication and conflict-transformation skills they acquire, and the structures of accountability that surround them can determine whether or not they exist and thrive in a healthy, intellectually challenging academic environment. Indeed, these factors can determine whether the college itself succeeds or fails in its mission to cultivate an informed, engaged citizenry.

Employing some of the strategies and approaches we discuss in the article, we expect to continue this dialogue and utilize the lessons learned and ideas shared in the coming academic year.

SPARC Recommendations

  • Campus Wide Community Building and Education: There need to be more opportunities for campus-wide community building and education opportunities. These events need to focus on strengthen community bonds and developing shared language and understanding of socio-political issues facing our communities. This will increase our communities capacity to engage with and transform challenges when they arise. Some opportunities that we see for doing this in the year ahead include:
  • Community Education Day: We strongly support setting aside at least one day a year for all members of the Hampshire College community to engage in collective learning, conversation and reflection that promotes a deeper understanding of anti-racism, social justice and cultivates an inclusive campus climate.  
  • Symposium on Democratic Speech: We have found the concept of Democratic Speech to be helpful in addressing the challenges we face as a campus community (and as a nation) with regards to communicating around charged socio-political issues. This was evident in the Can we talk? sessions we offered staff and faculty last year and in the feedback we are receiving in response to our article on Democratic Speech in the Spring/Summer (August, 2017) issue of the academic magazine Diversity & Democracy. We would like to further disseminate and engage with this concept through a day-long symposium in spring 2018.
  • Community Building Incentives for Students: We think it is critical for the institution to create and sustain community building and shared learning opportunities. We also think it is imperative to support and encourage students leadership around these efforts. One idea that is worth exploring further is the creation of a community-building fund for students that would enable student to initiate community building efforts on campus. This has the potential for strengthening curricular community engagement requirements, including CEL-1 and CEL-2, and should be explored further in consultation with the associate dean of community engagement, among others.
  • Capacity building and training: All members of our campus community needs access to more robust capacity building and training opportunities with a focus on community building, shared leadership, and collaboration. This needs to be tied to a broad effort to shift the campus culture away from individualism and isolation and towards community and collaboration. Trainings should include facilitation and group process, communication, conflict resolution and transformation, and dialogue, among other things. We should build on, expand and learn from current efforts to provide training opportunities for various sectors of the campus community including the work of Ethics and the Common Good, the Theatre Program, Transformative Speaking, Community Partnerships for Social Change, Childhood Youth and Learning, Center for Teaching and Learning, office of multicultural education, Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program, among others. Providing training opportunities for all members of our community should be the shared responsibility of human resources, academic affairs and dean of faculty’s office, and Student Life and dean of student’s office.
  • Educational Training and Support for Students: Hampshire College attracts many students because of its explicit commitment to social justice, which encourages student to transform their ideas into action. There are, however, limited supports, resources, and opportunities for students to develop the necessary skills, practices, and capacity that enables them to do this in a consistent, supported and reflective way. We believe that this should be a critical component of a Hampshire education. Students should have ample opportunities to develop and practice their shared leadership and collective action skills in community. This includes facilitation and group process, communication, conflict resolution and transformation, and dialogue. Some structures that could support this are a summer leadership institute focused on shared leadership and collective action, and the development of student cohorts / communities of practice that support student they learn, reflect and put into practice what they are learning.
  • Enhance Hiring Process and New Staff/Faculty Orientation: We think it is critical for all new hires, including staff and faculty, to have a robust understanding of the institution that they are joining. This should include a clear understanding of Hampshire’s mission, vision, values and culture.  This should be part of the hiring process and should be included in job posting and thoroughly discussed as part of the interview process.
  • Support Relationship Building and Collaboration: Faculty, staff, and students benefit from opportunities for shared learning and relationship building in facilitated spaces. The Changemaker Dialogue, which was organized by Kristen Luschen in collaboration with Javiera Benavente and others last year, is a great example of this kind of work and could serve as a model for future efforts. It provided staff, faculty, and staff space to build relationships, engage in shared learning and dialogue, and generate ideas (some of which are being implemented) for how better to support changemakers on campus.

These recommendations are in concert with and echo many of the recommendations from each of the other Presidential Advisory Councils. We believe these recommendations for change cannot work in isolation or in competition but rather must be implement in relationships with the recommendations made by the other advisory councils.


Throughout this process we have learned a lot about the shape of our campus community. We are far from a community in the cohesive sense. We are still quite a way away from achieving a cohesive campus community that is based in collaboration, resilience, and communication across difference. We need a consistent effort of communicating that collaboration is crucial to the educational experience here. This will, however, require the development and dissemination of tools for critical engagement and accountability. Simply upholding a reputation of “disrupting higher ed” or “we’re outside of the box” or “1400 individual projects” etc., will not generate the sense of collectivism we have encouraged in this report. Students and other campus members will need to see the inherent value in collaboration, creativity, imagination, and shared knowledge. Encouraging campus-wide and regularly funded community-building activities that impact beyond already established constituencies will be as important as continuing to racially diversify the campus at all levels. In this work, we have to demonstrate consistency of collective purpose. This work must be done openly and genuinely. Shifting the culture requires that we continue to navigate the waves of campus-based socially engaged protest, while upholding the commitment to rigorous knowledge production enlivened by the full range of creative modes. Cultivating trust, openness, and accountability will be key.

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