That said, people on campus still may be targets of hate or bias. For them, a group of faculty and staff have put together the Bias Incidence Response Team (BIRT).
BIRT, a program of the CODRE Campus Environment Team, has been a year and a half in the making. Team members were announced at a recent vigil for Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after being bullied and harassed by classmates. UofL Today recently talked to BIRT.
UofL Today: What defines a bias incident?
BIRT: What makes an incident one of hate or bias is that it’s targeting someone because of some aspect of their identity — who they are.
UofL Today: What is BIRT’s role?
BIRT: There are four things. Support is BIRT’s primary role. When we started planning in early 2009, we really looked at campus and we realized that UofL has a lot of resources — people and offices — that address bias issues. Public Safety, Human Resources, the dean of students — all of them address issues, but they don’t necessarily have as part of their core mission the role of supporting victims.
When someone reports a bias or hate crime to the Department of Public Safety, it’s important that the officers remain neutral and maintain a healthy level of objectivity. It’s the same with the dean of students. When someone is investigating an incident report, they can’t always provide the victim with the personal support they need. BIRT has the freedom to say ‘We’re going to start from the premise that what you’re telling us is the truth.’ We’re going to listen. We’re going to empathize and we’re going to talk through what happened and how they’re feeling about it.
Often what people really want when something happens to them is just to be listened to, and if the university is criticized for being uncaring, it often stems from the fact that no one had the role of listening. No one just sat with that person and heard his or her story and said, ‘You know what, I believe you and I know it really hurts when we’re targeted.’ That kind of role can really shift a lot of people’s perceptions of what kind of campus this is.
Our second role is referral — helping victims find their way to appropriate campus resources and to use them effectively. We don’t want to duplicate services, just to help people find the ones they need.
Education is another role — developing and promoting campus education programs about what constitutes hate and bias and the effects of hate and bias. And it works both ways — sometimes our role will be to educate people about free speech and that when someone disagrees or dislikes what we say or who we are, it doesn’t always fall under the legal definition of hate speech.
Our last role is one of promotion. We’ll promote new initiatives and campaigns, such as the president’s campaign for respect.
UofL Today: Will BIRT help anybody on campus or is it just for students?
BIRT: Anybody — students, faculty, staff or even a campus visitor.
UofL Today: If I feel that I have been the victim of bias or hate, what’s the first thing I should do?
UofL Today: What else should people know?
BIRT: People should know how BIRT fits within other key programs at UofL — Ideas to Action (i2a), for instance. Open mindedness, challenging our own internal assumptions and thinking multiculturally are all critical thinking concepts — part of what the i2a team calls a critical society. BIRT also fits into the Great Places to Work initiative that the provost put together to find ways to make the university an even better workplace for faculty and staff. And of course, the president’s new campaign about respect and civility is a perfect companion to the BIRT and the idea of campus free of hate and bias.
(Editor’s Note: The BIRT Team includes Sharon LaRue, Brian Buford, Michael Anthony, Jonathan Johnson, Mordean Taylor-Archer and Diane Whitlock)