The University of Chicago received national attention last month after an administrator issued a letter to freshmen telling them that the university will not condone the creation of so-called “safe spaces” where students can retreat from ideas and perspectives “at odds with their own.”
It's a hot-button issue for schools across the nation.
For their part, Northern Illinois University leaders are looking beyond the confines of the campus to create an environment for people of all backgrounds, beliefs and experiences.
This is the third year for the Unity March bringing together DeKalb Police, NIU Police, local churches, and several student groups. Hundreds of people joined the walk this year. Angelo Williams was among them. He's a biology major from Chicago.
“I feel like it was my responsibility to be here,” Williams said. "If I talk about these type issues all of the time, I’ve got to take a little action with it too. I feel like this is a little bit of initiative on my part."
He says the walk is just the start of getting his voice heard.
“After awareness, we need to take more action and hopefully get into the minds of people who are in power who can make change that we want to see,” Williams said.
They started in the MLK Commons, continued through Greek Row, and back through a quiet neighborhood near campus.
NIU graduate student James Alford says the walk is a way to connect.
“You get out. You get to meet people that you may not typically see going about your regular day,” Alford said, "and we have a lot of different entities represented – from universities to the churches."
Lisa Seymour is with New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb.
“We've got to continue to pour into our children that, no matter what your color is, no matter what your inability or disability is, we all are made differently and uniquely – but we should all love one another,” Seymour said.
DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery says the march sends a good message for those who might be watching from the sidelines.
“I think they need to see a cross-section of our community, both the university and the city, and they need to see them as one," Lowery said. "Total solidarity-- trying to march to demonstrate unity. If I had a magic wand, I’d try to wave it and say, ‘Plant the seed for conversation,’ which I think would be a huge, huge benefit.”
Lowery says with awareness comes acknowledgment of the issues facing the community and the nation.
“You have to own this. Owning the fact that this country does have some problems,” Lowery said. "We have to deal with those and we have to be fair and equitable to everybody."
He says real conversation sets the stage for what happens next.
“If you have a dialogue and no one listens, you are almost bound to end up in some type of confrontation,” Lowery said. "Regardless of anyone’s particular position, as long as you listen to that position and understand them for their perspective, you avoid so many problems.”
NIU President Doug Baker was pleased with the turnout.
“This march is probably four to five times bigger than it was three years ago," he said, "so I think we are building momentum.”
He says NIU has a strong enough foundation to chart its own course for how it introduces tough topics.
“We are just building those relationships within campus and with the community," Baker said. "We are trying to become a model for America on how do you have dialogue in a respectful way and how do you take that to action so that you are actually changing this for the better?”
The march was followed by a skill-building workshop on civil discourse. Campus leaders have also planned a monthly series of "Diversity Dialogues."