By Audrey Huynh
This quarter, 17 campus organizations have requested that Beyond the Line (BTL), an interactive activity that engages Stanford students in discussions about controversial issues of race, class, gender and campus culture, be facilitated in their student groups or residential spaces.
BTL was launched last fall by the Stanford Diversity and First-Generation Office (DGen), in collaboration with Stanford Residential Education. Since then, dozens of student groups and Stanford faculty have participated in the activity, including multiple fraternities and sororities, as well as ethnic theme houses and members of the Stanford administration.
BTL was first developed by a team of Stanford faculty and students, led by associate dean and director of DGen Dereca Blackmon ’91. However, the activity is not an entirely new concept, and although their names are similar, BTL is a separate event from the well-known Crossing the Line activity held in dorms with freshmen.
“The activity we know here as BTL is something I had been using for years,” Blackmon said. “When I was first introduced to it, it was called Agree/Disagree, and lots of people I know who do training and workshops all around the country were using it.”
Following a year of intense social activism and turmoil on the Stanford campus, Blackmon realized it was time to bring a similar program to Stanford students.
“I think what happened was that we had so many things we wanted to discuss at Stanford and issues that came up, and we were looking for a way to engage those issues in a format that allowed multiple people to speak,” Blackmon said. “So I immediately thought of Agree/Disagree, and we sort of tailored that to what the needs at Stanford were.”
During the summer of 2014, Blackmon worked with Residential Education as well as with current students to determine what issues were most important and salient on the minds of Stanford students. They paid special attention to the issues that Blackmon describes as “the touchy subjects that we want to talk about but we don’t really know how to talk about.”
In the first version of BTL, the program booklet included approximately 35 different statements. However, only 10 to 15 are used in a single BTL activity, and they are usually tailored to the specific interests of each group. These statements are continuously revised as the DGen Office receives feedback from Stanford students and faculty who participate.
During a BTL activity, an invisible line is drawn down the middle of a room, and one side is designed as the “Yes, I agree” side while the other side is designed the “No, I disagree” side. Students are then given a series of controversial statements with which they must choose to agree or disagree. Following this decision, several students are given the opportunity to explain to the rest of the group why they chose the side that they did. Throughout this dialogue, students are encouraged to switch sides if someone says something that really resonates with them and causes them to see the issue in a different light.
The program has received both positive feedback and criticism among Stanford students. While many participants found the experience moving, others struggled with the ambiguity of some of the statements and expressed discomfort with the format of the discussion.
“Some of the questions were really confusing, which is part of the problem I had with BTL,” said a junior RA in an all-freshmen dorm who preferred to remain anonymous to avoid conflict with her residents. “The way they’re phrased, they can be interpreted differently, and depending on how you interpret, you stand on different sides of the line, but you have the same thought process about the issue [as the people on the other side].”
According to Blackmon, the ambiguity in many of the statements exists for a reason.
“Ambiguity is entirely intentional because it’s a reflection of life experience,” she said. “The ambiguity is real in life.”
As an example, one of the questions often asked in BTL inquires whether it is offensive to tell a person of color that they are “articulate.”
“The people standing on the yes side interpreted it as someone saying ‘Wow, you’re SO articulate,’ which obviously is an insult. And the people on the no side interpreted it as ‘no, articulate is a compliment, and I would love to tell that to anyone,” the junior RA said. “It just means that you’re impressively educated –- completely unrelated to your color. That’s just really confusing, and to have people on the opposite side think that you’re thinking something you’re not actually thinking was frustrating.”
Blackmon said she designed that statement with the intention of provoking discomfort and, hopefully, increasing people’s awareness about their effect on others.
“People are not necessarily trying to be offensive when they say certain things, but because they’ve never lived a life where things like that get said to them over and over and over again, they have the privilege of not having that experience,” Blackmon said. “And so they’re completely unaware and unintentionally offending people. It’s not about not offending people; it’s about being more aware of your impact on others.”
Some students also struggled with the structure of BTL, in which only a few representatives from the “yes” side and the “no” side are allowed to explain their position.
“Sometimes the person speaking on your side would be on the side for a different reason then you, and then you were represented by this person whose ideals didn’t match you at all,” the RA said. “It was really uncomfortable to be misrepresented like that. I just didn’t like that label being placed on me and being uncomfortable with the way it fit.”
Blackmon said this diversity of opinion, even on one side of the room, is inevitable, and important to explore.
“That, to me, is part of the point,” Blackmon said. “I think every single BTL I’ve done, I’ve said ‘I want you to notice that there’s people across from you who are nodding, and then there’s people who are next to you who and are like… I don’t agree with that at all, and that’s not why I’m over here.’”
Despite some mixed opinions, however, many students see BTL as an important way to start conversations that might not otherwise be started.
“BTL asks more about personal opinions or beliefs, which can be heated, but at the same time, it exists in more of an intellectual space rather than an emotional space, which is a good place to start dialogue when you’re not super close to each other and don’t know where you stand,” said Annie Pham ’16, an ethnic theme associate in Okada.
Julian Alvarez ’17, an RA in an all-freshman dorm, agreed.
“I like that BTL is sort of a communal way to bring out these questions that need to be asked,” Alvarez said. “Because you wouldn’t, for example, eat lunch with somebody and ask them these questions. For some people, it wouldn’t really come about any other way.”
This year, based on an idea from the senior class, the DGen Office plans to expand BTL with the introduction of a new model, a “mini” BTL. It will include a smaller, more intimate version of the traditional activity followed by a facilitated dinner discussion.
Blackmon said she and her team hope to dispel several myths surrounding conversations about diversity, including busting the myth that it’s impossible to have these conversations with people of different beliefs and backgrounds. Ultimately, BTL hopes to challenge the way Stanford students think.
“I feel like Stanford students are being primed to be leaders, and I want to develop our emotional intelligence and our ability to be curious and not think that our role as intellectual leaders is to quickly form an opinion and a good, strong defense for that opinion,” Blackmon said. “The way we’ve been taught is to defend our opinion, not to constantly rethink it, but that’s what college is all about.”
Contact Audrey Huynh at ahuynh14 ‘at’ stanford.edu.