By Dr. Charles Taylor, Dr. Denise Ajeto, Professor Emeritus Angela Provitera McGlynn, Derek Johnson, and Dr. Aldo Billingslea
It seems like every week we read about another racial incident on some college campus and the traditional college response to that incident. While colleges must continue to provide anti-racist and diversity training, perhaps it time for them to become more proactive and reach students before they arrive on campus.
One group that could play a critical role in challenging students’ attitudes about diversity and inclusion is parents. Students still listen to their parents at least up to their junior year in college. Parents can be a tremendous resource in helping to improve the campus climate by having the diversity conversation with their kids before sending them off to school.
The question then becomes-what advice should parents give to their kids. I asked colleagues from around the country to help me draft a letter about diversity that parents can give to their kids before sending them off to college. What do you think?
Acquire Cultural Competency Skills
First and foremost we want you to know that diversity benefits everyone. It is something to be celebrated, embraced and not feared. We’re sending you off to college with the expectation that you will engage intellectually and socially with all types of people. We don’t want you to live your life in fear of others. We want you to become culturally competent and that’s different from just being tolerant of others. Cultural competency is the ability to engage people in ways that respect and honor their culture. In fact, it means learning to celebrate our differences as well as finding the common humanity we all share. A well educated person has an understanding and appreciation of people from different cultural/ethnic backgrounds and understands the normal variations in human sexuality.
Learning to become culturally competent is a process that requires a personal commitment to on-going learning and growth, a capacity for self-reflection, the ability to be open-minded and accountable for your actions. A very important step is to develop knowledge and awareness of your own cultural lens, and the assumptions, values and biases that shape this lens – including recognition of the limitations of your own knowledge and perspective.
Try to develop an understanding of the worldviews of culturally different people – including recognizing the need to put yourself in their place in order to genuinely understand their perspective. This requires an awareness of the tendency to associate “truth” with one’s own perceptions or values. So take advantage of any opportunity you get to acquire cultural competency skills.
Learn About your Classmates Histories
We want you to learn about your classmates’ histories and their stories and we want you to share yours. We are all products of our history, and in these histories we carry our DNA, and all the stories passed on to us through generations. To deny this history is to deny part of ourselves and who we are as people for indeed we are very much shaped by the history lived by our forebears.
Diverse racial and ethnic groups have a different history in the United States, and have therefore traveled very different paths to becoming part of the American Society. Lumping all people together is tantamount to stripping them of their collective histories, rich cultural heritage, and unique experiences.
Consider the history of the U.S. as composed of multiple narratives, where glory for some might have meant poverty, disenfranchisement and oppression for others. We encourage you to search for the historical truth wherever that search might lead. You see, my daughter/my son, the world that you will inherit will be vastly different from the one in which we grew up. It is your generation that will have to find a way to live in peace in our multicultural world.
Know that Diversity Benefits Everyone
Diversity truly enriches the classroom experience and when students from diverse backgrounds are empowered to share their unique lived experiences, this encourages critical thinking among their peers and even their professors. It both impacts and enhances the classroom instruction and pedagogy for all.
Remember that you are as good as anyone, but better than no one. Keep in mind that your actions and thoughts have the power to change the world. Know that there is a place for you in this world, but that you don’t own it.
Remember that we’re all connected. We need you to understand that when the environment on campus is improved for some students, it’s improved for you as well. Here is an example. One of the things that the Federal Disability Act did was make campuses more accessible for students with disabilities. Students in wheel chairs no longer have to worry about opening doors—all they have to do is push a button and the door swings open. What that means is that any student who has his/her hands full can push that same button. Although the automated doors were designed to benefit students with disabilities, they in fact benefit everyone including you.
Understand that Both Diversity and Inclusion are Needed
Remember that the true definition of diversity is broad enough to include all of us and takes into account differences in religion, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and other areas of differences. But diversity by itself is nothing without inclusion. Advocate for both! Be part of the solution–Don’t allow mockery, bullying, or mistreatment of your college-mates based on who they are or what group they are part of to take place with your silence. Always be loving and diplomatic about how you respond – this may take lots of thoughtfulness on your part. Silence, however, is a form of condoning the behavior that you see as hurtful.
Cooperation Trumps Competition
There is nothing inherently wrong with competition unless someone is hurt by it, but too often that is the case. When classmates cooperate in the learning experience, everyone is enriched. If you teach someone something you will learn the material better. Research has shown that when students work cooperatively on a project where each person’s contribution is necessary for completion, they not only produce better work, they also get to know and appreciate each other on a deeper level. I hope you will come to know and cherish the relationships you make in college.
The more we learn, the more we realize how much we have to learn and the more we become aware of the privileges we have, the more responsibility we have to act on that knowledge and use our privileges to help improve life for others and to change the things that are wrong in the world and the institutions of power that control it.
We’re counting on you my daughter/my son to be an advocate for inclusion by your beliefs, words and actions. You have the power to make a real difference.
With all of our love and support,
This speech was delivered at Edgewood College as part of their ‘Common Read’ program. I was one of four panel members asked to respond to the book: The Other Wes Moore. The book is about two African American males, with the same name and similar backgrounds that grew up in the inner city of Baltimore, Maryland. One became a Rhodes Scholar, decorated combat veteran, White House Fellow and business leader. The other is serving a life sentence in prison.
Although The Other Wes Moore would not have been my first choice for a Common Read, it did cause me to critically examine the social reality in which many urban blacks are forced to exist and reflect on the serious problems facing American society like poverty, race, crime, and limited opportunity. For me it was never about which Wes Moore succeeded but rather the need to explain the conditions that causes too many Wes Moores to fail.
The author Wes Moore succeeded not because racism has died, but because of a support system that got him through. We must ask ourselves what is it about our system that continuously fails the poor and black males in particular. Is poverty an individual problem or a structural one? Those who believe it’s an individual problem typically blame the other Wes Moore for his fate in life. They’ll say if he wasn’t raised in a single family household; or if he just had more determination or if he would have just done this or that. To be sure all of this carries a grain of truth, but it places the blame for his condition primarily on his shoulders as if external factors bare no blame.
The condition in which both Wes Moore’s found themselves just didn’t happen overnight. I often tell my students that if you want to get at the root causes of contemporary problems (especially involving race), you have to study their historical origins. So I’d like to use my 10-minutes to take a look back and put The Other Wes Moore into a broader historical perspective and perhaps point out some similarities between then and now.
There were at least 3 significant historical periods that had a profound impact on black Americans quest for equality in this country: 1) The Indentured Servitude Period; 2) Reconstruction and 3) the modern Civil Rights Era. [Read More...]
This is excerpts from a speech that I gave to young people several years ago at an Urban League’s MLK breakfast event. The full speech is in the Resource Center.
….Dr. King stressed education because he knew that education could be a ticket out for poor folks whom he so deeply loved and served. I know some young folks think they can dribble or sky hook their way out, or gangster rap their way out, but that’s like looking at a mule’s behind and predicting how big a load it can pull. Sports and hip-hop are long-shots. Education is a sure thing. It’s your ticket out. It opens up endless possibilities, but it requires some sweat equity. As a farmer once said, you can’t plough the field by turning it over in your mind. We need you to take a big swig from the fountain of knowledge-don’t just gargle…….
Young people listen to me now. We need you to continue to be leaders and fill our colleges and not our jails. We need you in our talented and gifted classes and not our remedial ones. We need you to make the honor roll list and not the suspension list. Education is your ticket out. [Read More...]