It’s human nature: Difficult conversations are often the easiest ones to avoid.
Yet when it comes to discussions surrounding diversity, bias, and cultural fluency, educators owe it to themselves and the students they serve to tune in.
Next month, attendees at NACAC’s national conference in Boston will have the opportunity to do just that. Two interactive Real Talk sessions—one addressing workplace issues, the other focused on the needs of students and families—will be facilitated by Lisa D. Walker, former director of Cross Cultural Student Development at the University of California-Berkeley.
“Good conversation and effective dialogue can inspire us to change individually and collectively,” Walker told Admitted. “In my experience, those changes often start small but can gain momentum over time.”
Walker took time of out of her busy schedule to chat about internalized messages, the keys to fruitful dialogue, and how courageous conversations can spur positive change.
Q: Meaningful discussions about diversity, bias, and cultural fluency can be difficult and sometimes uncomfortable. What makes these topics so tough to tackle?
A: I believe it’s tough to tackle these topics because often we haven’t had much practice talking across our differences. Then, when we do get to talk to each other, we have varying starting points for these conversations.
Also, most of us have messages we internalized as we grew up—not just about the categories of social identities like race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, class, and ability, etc. but also about what is okay to talk about and what is not. Some who are new to this conversation have fears around getting it “wrong” and of being judged for that. This can make it hard for them to push past those uncomfortable feelings and get more practice.
At the same time, for some this conversation is very familiar—sometimes painfully familiar. Some of us have lived in these identities and worked on related issues and there is a certain fatigue about having to talk about things like race again, and at an entry level. So, how do we talk across the spectrum of fear to fatigue? It’s sometimes uncomfortable to get started, but collectively I see us—especially those working in education—beginning to figure out strategies that work.
Q: What’s at stake if we ignore these issues?
A: Diversity is always happening—regardless of whether we are paying attention to it or not. I’m fond of saying, “if you are working with one other person, diversity is present.” Even between two individuals with similar backgrounds there are always differences—some that we can see and others that aren’t easily visible. Difference does not need our attention in order to happen. It just is. But, when we pay attention to it, we can use what we notice to change our behavior, to become more inclusive, more equitable. When we decide we want to create positive change in our environment for ourselves and others, then we are moving more towards a social justice lens.
Q: Whether at conference or in their own schools, what are one or two things participants can do or say to ensure conversations about diversity, bias, and cultural fluency are effective?
A: Every context is unique, of course. Creating a short list of shared agreements for these conversations is almost always helpful. An agreement like “speak from personal experience” or “Use ‘I’ statements” can operate powerfully. We just seem to hear each other better when folks express something through a story about themselves instead of telling us ….
I also offer the agreement of “self care/mutual care.” Self-care means check in with yourself about what is happening for you in the conversation. Are you ready for an authentic conversation right now? Sometimes if I haven’t slept well for a few nights or if I have seen something that troubles me deeply in the news, I have to admit that I am not at my full capacity for courageous conversation. Be real about what you have to offer in conversation. I encourage folks to take risks as they share—but risks at a level that feel right for them. With “mutual care” I am asking individuals to do their best to support the learning of others. There was a man that used to ask for change across the street from my campus. He would say “whatever you can give without hurting yourself.” This is what I mean by “mutual care.”
And note that I don’t advocate very long or restrictive lists of agreements. Sometimes we try to over stipulate ways that a conversation should happen and it works against authentic dialogue. It’s a balance.
Q: How do you turn talk into action?
A: As we leave meaningful conversation and dialogue, we can ask ourselves what we want to start or stop doing as a result of what we just learned. Here’s an example—one small but meaningful shift I asked myself to make was to not say “you guys” when referring to groups that include women. Actually, I find it most helpful not to use the term. I hadn’t really noticed that I was using a term that made some folks feel invisible. But, it’s true that I had never said “you gals” to refer to a mixed gender group. Students that I worked with helped me notice this habit in my language. I made an effort to stop saying it. It took practice, but I got better at it. These are the changes we can all make at a micro level. There are larger actions to take –there is a lot for us to do as educators! It’s my hope that our ability to practice the vulnerability and empathy that it takes to have these conversations at the micro level will help us work together on larger action.
Admitted writer/editor Mary Stegmeir welcomes additional comments and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.