Creating Safe Spaces

Facilitating authentic conversations about tough issues part of Woodson's work
Friday, May 15, 2015

Cornell Woodson, associate director for diversity and inclusion, joined the ILR School this semester to facilitate communication among students, faculty and staff and to assist students during their time on the Hill.

Creating safe spaces for frank dialogue and fostering student conversations around race, sexual orientation and other issues will be part of his work, said Woodson, envisioning  “People of different backgrounds sitting face-to-face and asking those real questions and getting some real answers.”

A 2009 graduate of Ithaca College, Woodson spent two years teaching Language Arts to students in Atlanta, Ga., through Teach For America.

“I was born and raised in Camden, N.J., and I always wanted to give back to a community that was similar to Camden,” Woodson said.

“My plan is to be a president of a college someday. I want to understand what students that are coming from neighborhoods, like the one I grew up in, what they were bringing to college in terms of baggage.”

Though he says he has a “love-hate relationship” with Teach For America, Woodson said his time as a teacher provided him with on-the-ground experience with secondary education.

Woodson said it also taught him life lessons such as “One size does not fit all. There is no golden ticket that can touch everybody.”

At Cornell, creating opportunities for authentic dialogue to occur is important, Woodson said.

“Students have been very vocal about feeling silenced and being left out in a major way. … I think we are scared to have the real conversations and hear those real stories,” he said.

“For me, it’s providing the spaces for students to say, ‘I have experienced this.’ But, also, for students who may have privilege to go, ‘I don’t know.’ … There has to be space for both of those things to happen. For people to feel like they can ask that question.”

Woodson plans to create two programs focusing on creating safe spaces, one of which is a 90-minute diversity workshop focused on race and class issues.

“It provides participants a historical background to systemic structures related to race and class, space for reflection on their own social identities, and definitions of some key terms,” he said.

Woodson is also planning a three-day retreat that “provides students/student leaders with the opportunity to learn about the social identities they hold, their role in systems of oppression -- both conscious and unconscious, the experience of others and how to be an ally to identity groups they are not a part.”