Bard LLI Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)/Social Justice Team: The Journey So Far


The Bard LLI focus on DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) and Social Justice began in the fall of 2020 with a class addressing racism called “Who, Us? What White People Can Do to Face Racial Injustice and Build a More Just America.”  The class arose, in part, from the personal experience of longtime LLI members and presenters Barbara Danish and Laura Brown. They were in a car caravan in support of Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd, when a Black mother admonished them, “Your honking is scaring my children. We already know that Black Lives Matter. Go home and take a look at yourselves.” That encounter started a long journey to think through how to structure a class for white people to examine both the history of race in America and their own biases.

Barbara Danish talked about the preparation that went into the class, “Laura (Brown) and I spent hours over a long period of time thinking, reading, and talking about how to structure a class that would not only provide facts but help us examine our own biases and white privilege.” The class that emerged was structured to include a combination of history, current events, and culture, as well as an examination of how white people have participated in and benefited from institutional racism. There was a focus not only on historical facts, many of which were unknown to class members, but also on creating a space to examine responses to issues of race and finding ways to act on what we were learning

From Class to Team Initiative

The impact of that first class has been described by many who participated as profound. As Kim Sears noted, “By the end of the semester, having worked closely together as a class for those seven weeks, ‘we’ had clearly metamorphosed into WE, and WE weren’t done despite what the calendar indicated. Meeting two to four times a month, we continued to read and discuss the need to ACT toward BUILDING opportunities to challenge ourselves and our communities.” (For stories from that class, click here.) This group coalesced into the initial team that led the DEI/Social Justice work within Bard LLI.

As one of the first steps, the team prepared a proposal for Council urging Bard LLI to make a bigger commitment to diversity and social justice issues and to change our mission statement to reflect that commitment. In June 2021, Council agreed to amend our mission statement and appointed the team as a new task force charged with helping to make Bard LLI a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization in ways that have an impact on each of us and the wider community we serve through employing the tools that we have: our courses, presenters, members, and leadership.

Expanding our Course Offerings

There was a deep recognition that organizational change would potentially come from a common bond based on the shared experience of teaching and learning together. Over the last 18 months, 11 courses have been developed that speak to social justice issues and the history, experience, expertise, and contributions of people of color.

Some of these courses were developed by members of the social justice team, others by experienced LLI presenters who sought out new content for their courses. The LLI Curriculum Committee then worked to ensure that the course descriptions reflected that diversity and multicultural content. As an example, Eleanor Wieder said, “If you have a course on the Lindy Hop, mention that it originated in Harlem.” The courses that were developed over the months offered a balance between large lecture classes and small intimate classes designed to foster discussion, deeper engagement, and a continuing examination of our own biases. The use of Zoom for the large classes allowed the team to engage experts from across the country, including eight Black presenters.

The response from the LLI community, both in enrollment and feedback, confirmed there was significant support for the direction and content. African Americans in the Hudson Valley and Race and the Rise of the New Right each had enrollments of over 100—among the highest enrollments for any LLI course. As a co-producer for both these courses, Martha Honey elaborated on the creation of Race and the Rise of the New Right: “We felt that in order to get back to a more decent society we really needed to look at the nexus of racism and the rise of organized violence: militias and racist and antigovernment violence. Once we had our idea for the course, together with Barbara Danish and Laura Brown, my co-organizers, we worked to refine the idea of the course and to shape the content, the arc of the course, identified presenters, and established an interview approach. It was an incredible learning experience for us as well as those who took the class.”

Collaboration with Regional LLIs

From the beginning of this initiative, the team felt there was an opportunity to work with other LLIs in our region who might join us in the work of becoming more multicultural learning communities. There has been a history of sharing information among our regional LLIs and through that network, Martha Honey initiated a discussion about DEI and social justice issues.

At that early stage Bard was one of the only LLIs with a dedicated team and a commitment to DEI in its mission statement. Martha Honey, Linda Scherr, and Jill Lundquist formed a working group to organize several regional meetings with seven other LLIs and document each LLI’s experience with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to date. Inspired by Bard LLI, most other LLIs had launched DEI initiatives within a year. Bard also took the lead on a survey to consolidate data and practices around membership. Over the last year interest has remained high, with a commitment to meet twice annually. There was a shared interest in identifying opportunities to collaborate on course offerings that featured more diverse content.

To that end, Linda LeGendre, as our head of Curriculum, joined the working group and has helped to develop two pilots. The first is a shared registry of presenters, developed by Bard, Vassar, and Marist, which will help us identify and develop an intellectual community among the LLIs. Vassar has agreed to lead this work. As this pilot matures it will be extended to include the other regional LLIs. The second is a collaboration between Bard, Marist, and Vassar LLIs to offer a webinar that would be open to members of all the regional LLIs. In addition, Council has just agreed to offer a few of our WinterFest courses to the DEI committees at Vassar and Marist and also to groups in the community as Bard DEI members reach out to establish new, more diverse relationships. Vassar has agreed to organize and host the next regional meeting.

From Learning to Action

Throughout the past year and a half the team has increasingly sought ways to build on our learning experience and find ways to engage with our larger community. LLI members Linda LeGendre, Kathy OConnor, Felice Gelman, and Jill Lundquist worked with four area libraries to organize a Community Conversation on Race. Linda LeGendre talked about the event, “We wanted to be able to do something, we had had this profound change [in the Who, Us? class] and we were trying to find ways to take action in our community. We worked with the libraries and identified a number of books—nonfiction, fiction, a graphic novel, a young adult novel—so that there was something for many kinds of readers.” The event was a great success.

The team also began to look at ways to enhance the LLI class experience and in Race and the Rise of the New Right, they offered an eighth session so that people could break into small facilitated groups to discuss what they had learned and identify the potential for action. Linda LeGendre commented on the impetus for the extra class, “We bring up all these issues through our course offerings – social injustice or social justice – and people have nowhere to go with what they learned. So we were trying to create a space where people could talk about what they learned. It seemed like the missing part of the learning experience.” Fifty class members signed up and breakout sessions were facilitated by the DEI/Social Justice team.

Team members also began to reach out to local community organizations and meet with community leaders. The team, in conjunction with Council, sponsored a Bard LLI ad in Black History Month Kingston and co-sponsored, with the Bard Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) and Oblong books, an event with Congressman Jamie Raskin to talk about his new book and the work of the January 6th Committee.

As part of Summerfest 2023, Bard LLI is planning a tour of Kingston O+ Murals.

Going Forward

Over the past year the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion has been addressed in numerous ways throughout the organization, resulting in changes both large and small. As we move into 2023, a priority is to engage more directly with the numerous community groups in the Hudson Valley with the hope that we can introduce them to Bard LLI and identify common goals and areas of possible collaboration around learning opportunities. As we do this outreach, we do so as a community partner under the auspices of the Bard Center for Civic Engagement, our sponsor within the Bard community. CCE has an expansive local network that includes numerous organizations that share a common purpose with our work. It is our hope that, over time, the relationships we build with diverse organizations will lead to wonderful learning opportunities for our members and more diverse applications for membership in Bard LLI.

As we build on the work of last year, the initial goals of that first class are important to acknowledge and reiterate: We strive to continue to educate ourselves and our community about diversity and social justice, to become more aware of ourselves as citizens of a multi-ethnic, multicultural world, and to carry that education and awareness into action. Or, as one team member explained, “We’re trying to create learning experiences that might change the way we think and act in the world.”

Bard LLI DEI/Social Justice Team Co-Chairs: Barbara Danish, [email protected], and Laura Brown, [email protected]. Other team members are Kayla Bell,  Kathryn Clark, Felice Gelman, Joanne Goodman, Susan Hinkle, Martha Honey, Linda LeGendre, Jill Lundquist, Susan Manuel, Mary McClellan, Kathy OConnor, Jackie Olivet, Ellen Pendegar, Linda Scherr, Kim Sears, Linda Stanley, and Eleanor Wieder.