Board of Trustees committee discusses diversity initiatives 

Students sitting in circle talking

Participating Red Lion Area School District educators discuss their fall inquiries as part of a professional learning community put together by the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Right Education Initiative.

Credit: Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Two notable diversity efforts from the campus and college levels, which at their core address injustices that have and still occur in society, were the focus of discussion at the Board of Trustees Committee on Outreach, Development and Community Relations today (May 5). 

Both the Crossing Bridges Summit, established in 2017 at Penn State Greater Allegheny, and the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative, started in 2019 in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, seek to engage a wide audience in learning, understanding and working for social change.    

Representing the initiatives were Marie Hardin, dean of the Bellasario College of Communications; Jacqueline Edmondson, chancellor and chief academic officer at Penn State Greater Allegheny; Alisha Tarver, information resources and support specialist at Greater Allegheny; and Boaz Dvir, assistant professor of journalism in the Bellasario College. 

Crossing Bridges Summit 

When Edmondson arrived at Greater Allegheny in 2017, she established an ambitious vision with four signature programs designed to strengthen educational experiences and student success, and forge strong connections with the communities surrounding the McKeesport-based campus.  

The Crossing Bridges Summit, one of the four signature programs, works to bridge racial divides in the Mon-Valley and wider Pittsburgh region.  

“Communities are at the heart of Penn State’s land-grant mission,” said Edmondson. “When I arrived in McKeesport, I was determined that the communities adjacent to and near to our campus would know their importance to us, and our commitment to them. Forty-two percent of Greater Allegheny students are from diverse backgrounds. I wanted our campus and our communities to be places that are actively working to eliminate racism and racial barriers.” 

The work of the Crossing Bridges Summit occurs through five key areas: 1) a Speakers Series that brings local and national experts to the campus to offer different perspectives of race and racism; 2) Summit Talks in which faculty, staff, students and community members gather to discuss speakers’ major points and identify actions for positive change; 3)  Student-Led Unity Talks organized by and for students, giving them a safe space to engage in conversations; 4) a Visiting Scholar Series that brings intellectuals, artists, activists and others to campus; and 5) a Task Force on Racial Equity and Justice that examines curriculum and programming to promote and support the campus community’s understanding of racial justice, racism, and its impact on society.   

Joining Edmondson was Penn State Greater Allegheny alumna Alisha Tarver. Tarver was a student member of the Crossing Bridges Summit Committee, a group of individuals often referred to as “the think tank” of the program. She covered several Crossing Bridges Summit events for the campus student newspaper, winning a statewide award for her coverage. She continues to serve on the committee as a campus employee from the J. Clarence Kelly Library.   

“I was so pleased to be able to share the work our campus community is doing to bridge racial divides through the Crossing Bridges Summit and its five pillars, and to be accompanied by Alisha who could share the impact of our work from both a student and employee perspective,” Edmondson said. “Many people have worked very hard over the past five years to engage this work with our campus and surrounding communities, and it has been impactful in many ways.” 

Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative 

The Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative empowers K-12 educators to effectively teach difficult topics such the Holocaust, genocide, human rights violations and other challenging subjects. The initiative offers sustained and customized professional learning programs, online modules and instructional materials. 

Through a trauma-informed lens, the initiative guides teachers in helping students develop insight into the human condition and life skills such as empathy, active listening, critical thinking, civic discourse and agency by applying inquiry approaches to the instruction of difficult topics. Over time, these methods become transformative, contributing to equitable education for all children. 

According to Boaz Dvir, assistant professor of journalism, many teachers don't feel confident teaching these topics, even though 96% of schools in the commonwealth have required at least one teacher to be trained to teach about the Holocaust since the Holocaust and Genocide Education Bill was passed into law in 2014. 

“It's not unreasonable when teachers hesitate to wade into difficult social topics, given the daunting complexity of the topics and the potential for controversy,” Dvir said. “Ultimately, through our initiative we hope to help teachers help kids understand that they can make a difference in this world. Education should not be about checking off boxes; it should be about becoming a better person, about fully realizing your human potential.” 

The Initiative breaks the mold of the one-shot professional learning workshop by creating inquiry communities. Traditional professional development often falls short, partly because it is disconnected from teachers’ day-to-day work and rarely includes follow-up support. The initiative’s high-quality professional learning is intensive and extensive, improving educators’ practice and work with students. The initiative’s flagship programs engage teachers in a year of inquiry-based professional learning, informed by the latest research and scholarship. 

The initiative partners with entities such as the Pennsylvania Department of Education and school districts to help teachers and their students adopt an inquiry stance toward difficult topics and challenges that impact their lives and communities. Inquiry empowers K-12 students to own their learning, according to the initiative’s creators.