Intergroup Relations

Photo of Adam Falkner

IGR shines this month’s Alumni Spotlight on Adam Falkner, a 2007 Graduate of U-M and IGR. Adam was deeply involved in many aspects of the program while a student, and he went on to pursue a uniquely designed life path that incorporates many facets of his IGR experiences, which have significantly shaped who he is as an individual and a community leader. Adam works in the non-profit sector using arts and education to further dialogue and social justice, and is also currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English Education through Columbia University. We are excited to share a little about Adam with you.

Q: Tell us about your involvement in IGR as a student.

A: I was sitting in the cafeteria during my first year in college, eating macaroni and cheese while reading a table tent that asked me if I was interested in various things related to diversity and identity and I mentally said “yes”, “yes” and “yes”! So I went back to my room and signed up for my initial IGR experience, which was to participate in a race & ethnicity dialogue.

Over time, I ended up going through all phases of the program that were offered at the time. I  loved that the class material was provocative and the discussion wasn’t all filtered through a professor in the room. It was great that people felt that my life, and the life of my peers, were worthy of academic exploration. I should note that this all occurred during a turbulent time at the University of Michigan, because the U.S. Supreme Court decision to ban Affirmative Action practices in admissions had just happened. The dialogue course was a very open place to discuss it, without a lot of code words or filters.

Among other experiences, I also co-facilitated the first dialogue IGR ever offered on White Racial Identity. I have to admit I was really resistant to that at first and it took some convincing from Monita and Mark to get me to say yes (I had already said no twice!) I have to say it was a struggle for me to be in that role, but it definitely deepened my relationship to dialogue, to U-M, and to my own sense of self as a researcher. I also created my own major as a student and so much of it stems from that experience I had facilitating the White Racial Identity dialogue.

Q: Within the issues of identity, dialogue, and social justice, what are your special areas of interest?

A: A lot of my interest in Higher Education and school is connected to my interest in pop culture, including issues of entertainment. I am a poet and a creative non-fiction writer and a lot of what I write about relates to my own life and how it connects to or relates to different themes in pop culture. Especially in my undergraduate experience, I was also deeply engaged in unpacking, through poetry, my own racial identity development. I looked at how I was a white kid deeply engaged in hip-hop and cultures that were distinctly not mine as a younger person. The White Racial Identity dialogue stirred up a feeling in me of needing to examine my own story prior to feeling licensed to engage in the lives and identities of those around me.

This also explains my initial resistance that I mentioned, about facilitating the dialogue on White Racial Identity. When I was first offered that opportunity, something in me was really triggered-- really frustrated and scared and defensive about the process of having to look at my own reactions and beliefs so that I could be a facilitator for others in a classroom space. But ultimately this whole process uncorked for me a really important tenet s a writer and as a teacher: before we engage in issues of racism and homophobia and oppression, we need to look really carefully at the stories in our own lives that shape how we think about ourselves and our own identities. That is a thread that carries through a lot of my teaching and writing and this honestly stems from my experience as an IGR facilitator.

Q: What are some experiences or lessons that have created AHA moments for you in your education and work?

A: In terms of my undergraduate experience, I remember my participants and their stories pretty clearly, even though I’m ten years removed from the program. And I remember certain IGR exercises that were really powerful and eye-opening at the time. Among others, I remember once when we did a privilege walk and I had a very negative reaction, partly because I’m a deeply privileged young man and did not want that to be made visible in a class exercise. I feel all the exercises had really deep symbolic power and I didn’t always enjoy or appreciate every one of them, but I really recognized the potential of them to create AHA moments in participants.

Also reading a lot of Beverly Tatum’s work, as well as Tim Wise and Frances Kendall’s work.

Q: Can you tell us about Dialogue Arts Project?

A: I founded the Dialogue Arts Project (DAP) in 2013. DAP partners with organizations to create energizing training experiences in order to help participants collaborate and communicate more effectively across lines of social identity. The program use the arts as a shared entry point into critical discourses around identity to increase awareness of self and social diversity. It combines performance, participant art creation, and facilitated dialogue as a way to reinvent the current “diversity training” experience. DAP has served a wide array of clients ranging from university faculty, teachers-in-training, student leadership groups, and employees of Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations.

Now that I’m pursuing my Ph.D., DAP’s phenomenal program directors Jon Sands and fellow U-M alum Lauren Whitehead take care of a lot of the day-to-day program management. My focus has changed to be more on cultivating relationships and building new opportunities for the program.

Q: Tell us more about your graduate work.

A: I’m a doctoral student at Columbia University’s Teachers College, in the English Education program. I’ve completed three years and all the coursework, so now I am focusing on writing and studying for certification exams. My dissertation is about how young people experienced a pilot version of the non-profit I created, called the Dialogue Arts Project.

I do not have specific plans after getting my Ph.D. But, I don’t intend to go the traditional “publish or perish” route and I’m expecting to do a lot of things and wear a lot of hats. Primarily, I hope to use Higher Education as a space to create creatively and as an opportunity to build networks in and around the institution. I’m still very interested in my work as an artist but also incorporating my research and identity as a budding scholar. It is a non-traditional and non-binary route, but I hope the two worlds in a way in which they’ll enrich and feed each other.

Q: You recently facilitated an evening with Dr. Cornel West. Tell us more about that!

A: Yes, Dr. West and I held a program called “Our Guttural Cry: An Urgent Argument for the Arts”. It featured Dr. West and I moderated the event, which was held at Columbia University. It was an exciting evening of multidisciplinary performance and dialogue about the importance of creative expression in education, the role of the arts in enabling dialogue across differences, and the responsibility of the artist amidst 2016's volatile political climate.

I arrived at this opportunity to work with Dr. West through my graduate studies. What initially was my curiosity to take a class with him, became a bit of a relationship and he was gracious enough to come and draw some attention to the project. He’s a really wonderful and profoundly present person. That event happened to be on the day that Prince died. That added a layer of emotional rawness to the evening, as Dr. West was very close with Prince and his family. Overall, it was a very successful and well-attended event.

Q: Do you have any advice for new graduates of IGR, based on your experience in “the field”?

A: I write this quote from Walt Whitman everywhere, and it’s above my desk at work:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Whitman is saying it’s ok to contract yourself and it’s ok to be more than one thing at once time. The world kind of tells us if we want to be better at one thing, than we need to be less good at another thing. I think this mentality misses out. I think the students in IGR have the capacity to heal the world, each one with multitudes within them. So my advice would be just to know that being more than one thing, at one time, in one space is an asset, not a detriment. It’s really useful to be a weirdo in a roomful of folks that all think the same.

The other piece is around education and socially or morally intact work. We often assume that where we “pay dues”, so to speak, is the only place those dues have value. I’ll use myself as an example to explain what I mean by that. I’ve worked diligently and carefully in arts and education for almost a decade. While It’s true that I’m building my resume in those fields, but I believe it’d be a trap to think that the fields of Arts and Education are the only places where those skills would have value in the world. In fact, I think that if you take those skills out of the occupational arenas where you gained them, they could have such a greater value. I’d love to see IGR graduates working for the NFL, for Pepsi, etc. Sometimes we assume we’ll only have a career in social justice if we submit to barely paying our rent and making a living, because our skills wouldn’t have value in the world. But I encourage students and graduates to think bigger and envision their IGR skill having impacts in all different arenas.