On Thursday, Feb. 20, diversity educator Jessica Pettitt engaged in conversation with students about trans* issues. She spoke first with faculty and staff for five consecutive hours before holding an open meeting with interested students.
Pettitt formerly worked in student affairs for over 10 years, including at New York University. She also worked in stand-up comedy for two years. She now works with college administrations and students, as well as with companies and corporations, encouraging conversations about prejudice and privilege. Pettitt described her intention to give a talk centered on inclusion.
“My job…is to stir up conversation so that different people can have conversations around privilege, their dominance and oblivion, as well as [to create] a space for people to share what it feels like to be marginalized and silenced by that oblivious privilege,” Pettitt said. “Whether we’re talking about cis-gender privilege or talking about race or age or class or ability, all of those pieces surface, even under the [topic] of trans* education.”
When speaking at schools and institutions, Pettitt comes with an open agenda, attempting to hold a forum that is as accessible as possible.
“I don’t actually come with a very structured agenda,” Pettitt said. “When I worked in student affairs and even as a student, I found it really annoying when consultants would come with this kind of prescribed agenda before they even showed up on campus. I’ve never worked at Wesleyan, I was never a student here, so for the 5-hour [staff] training I’ll have about 10 hours worth of material, and, depending on what the needs are of the people attending, I’ll adjust accordingly.”
The order of Pettitt’s meeting with faculty during the day and students at night was decided by students’ increased availability during the evening. Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Whaley explained this in more detail.
“Whenever we bring consultants to campus, we always make arrangements for a student session during their visit,” Whaley wrote in an email to The Argus. “The afternoon training is specifically for the Student Affairs staff. There are always a few faculty and staff outside of Student Affairs who ask to attend, and we welcome them to join us.”
Pettitt discussed how she approaches the two groups and what her intentions are with each meeting.
“I don’t typically treat the two groups differently,” Pettitt said. “We have a lot of ageism when we talk about this kind of work where [people think that] administrators somehow need different information than students, and I don’t really buy into that.”
In her talk, Pettitt planned to address more generalized issues facing trans* people as well as discuss concerns that are specific to marginalized students at the University.
“Sometimes we talk about specifically vocabulary and language; even on Wesleyan’s campus that has a pretty positive reputation across the country around trans* inclusion, there may be some people who don’t know words or understand pronouns or bathroom issues or certain issues like that,” Pettitt said. “I’m going to start in that place and then other people will want to know how the Affordable Care Act is affecting trans* medical care, which for some people may be seen as a more advanced topic. So I can do the gamut, just depending on what the needs in the moment are so that it’s more personalized.”
Whaley discussed the administration’s reasoning in bringing a trans* educator to campus.
“The Student Affairs staff regularly brings consultants to campus to work with us on issues of diversity and inclusion,” Whaley wrote in an email to The Argus. “At the end of the 2012-13 academic year, the group suggested that we focus on class issues and trans* issues during this academic year.”
Students in attendance at the evening presentation expressed a desire for more information on allyship and inclusiveness. Rachel Warren ’14, one attendee, voiced her opinion on the subject.
“The bigger reason [I’m here] is because I grew up in a super-liberal world with a good number of cis-gendered people, and I don’t know if I just wasn’t paying attention or if my sex education just didn’t include it, but I’ve come to realize that I have many, many misconceptions,” Warren said. “And I would say it’s at the point where it’s hard to ask questions because it’s embarrassing, you feel like this is something you should know more about as a generally well-educated person.”
Whaley explained the need for educators like Pettitt to come to campus.
“Many members of the Student Affairs team have considerable training and experience on social justice issues,” Whaley wrote. “Still, diversity and inclusion is an area on which we constantly focus to build our knowledge and skills in working with our students.”
According to Whaley, students can look forward to similar events organized by the Office of Student Affairs in the future.
“Students interested in this type of work should keep an eye out for other opportunities in the future,” Whaley wrote. “We always make arrangements for the consultant(s) to work with students when they visit.”
Pettitt described her hopes for the lasting impression the talk could have on students and faculty.
“My main goal is for people to feel comfortable to share their experiences of what they’re comfortable with and what they’re not comfortable with, even long after I’ve left.”