Diversity Literacy’s Painful Discourse:

Beyond Exotic Foods, Dances, Songs and Splash of Color

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi, 2020

Diversity Literacy is one of the most difficult and challenging topics to navigate at conferences and professional development workshops, not to mention talking about with family members, friends and colleagues.

As a well traveled veteran of such gatherings, as a participant and organizer, I quickly learned that regardless of the amount of time spent on planning and organizing for the day or week, there were no guarantees that well constructed messages embedded in quantitative and qualitative research would reach the minds and hearts of attendees, and more important, that the messages would linger and be applied.

Planning and organizing a Diversity Conference most often dealt with challenges. The first was to create a relevant program dealing with the complexities of Diversity. This was a matter of providing current content and research. The second being the teaching<>learning methods, activities and opportunities for discourse with facilitators and between participants.

Another challenge was to remain aware, that unlike other conferences, attendees would differ as to ideologies, predispositions and backgrounds. Different constituencies would attend for a multitude of reasons. For example, it is obvious that Foreign Language Teachers wound attend Foreign Language Conferences – Math and Science teachers attend Math and Science workshops. But Diversity conferences draw different constituencies with a host of reasons for attending.

On occasion there was a white member of a Board of Education, Board of Trustees, Superintendent, Headmaster who wanted to know ‘what they did not know‘ about Diversity. They also attended in order to decide whether there were reasons to appropriate funds for Diversity programs, conferences and facilitators.

They wanted to know how Diversity would impact the brand, ‘customers’, parents, students, faculty, curriculum mapping, HR department and hiring practices. The majority were there with pro-active attitudes willing to listen, question and learn. It was an uncomfortable space because for once they were in the minority – a new reality for them.

I found such individuals deserving of respect as they came by choice to a foreign space wanting to make a difference upon returning home. As one Headmaster shared, “The entire country needs to take a week off and deal with such realities. Thank you for the awakening. It took me a day or so to feel comfortable enough to freely and honestly ask questions and even answer some. I have much to share with the board… with the school. We have much work to do.”

But not all had come by choice. There were some employees on probation who were required to attend by a school district or institution because they had demonstrated a lack of ‘sensitivity’ towards difference and otherness. These were the most challenging non-participants as they tended to avoid collaboration, felt isolated, victimized, oppressed by the facilitators of color – how ironic.

My experiences affirmed that facilitators organizing such conferences were academically trained, experienced, dedicated and worked diligently to create a safe environment so that all participants could learn and walk away with academic resources, strategies and awareness.

Participants were also provided with options to remain connected to mentors and counselors who would provide guidance and support from a distance. Returning to institutions that were ‘stuck on being stuck.’ Dealing and struggling with change was an arduous task requiring resilience, fortitude, patience; building alliances and doing the work on a daily basis – step by step – stone by stone. They realized that ‘the work’ was not an event but an ongoing process.

Diversity conferences worthy of attending are not walks through pastoral parks. They tend to avoid giving such advice: “Return to your sites and create a multicultural day where everyone can enjoy ethnic food, dance and song. Don’t forget to invite the urban Gospel singers.” “Let’s just agree to be color blind because we are a melting pot. “Let’s hold hands, Kumbaya together and feel good about diversity!” “And remember, Diversity is good for business!

These are but a few examples of how serious discourse on Diversity Literacy can quickly turn into token Culture Days – a safe space once a year to savor exotic foods and view exotic dances. As one parent commented, “It’s like attending a halloween party. Everyone dressed in their native costumes.” Such token days are an insult to participants, audience and institution.

What was always a learning curve for me at such conferences were the norms that were painstakingly developed by facilitators. They knew that the conference would be generating discomfort given the topics and asking participants to reflect introspectively. The language for some would be new; as would be the candidness of the presentations. For some, hearing for the first time “White Privilege, Aversive Racism by the Well Intended, Social Constructs, Multigenerational Trauma, Misogyny, Xenophobia, Confirmation Bias, and Race as a Construct” would be unsettling, needing time for processing and opportunities for  clarification and dialogue.

Reactions at conferences and workshops differed as some participants could feel as if they were being judged as oppressors and victimizers. It would be honest to say that everyone attending (from participant to facilitator) was or would be entering a transitional stage as to knowledge and awareness.

It was therefore necessary to continually build credibility and trust providing relevance without pandering, condescending, romanticizing, intellectually abstracting or appropriating history, culture, language and identity. The conference could not be thought of as dedicated to only one constituency, but rather project inclusivity regardless of differences among participants and facilitators. Therefore quality time was provided for participants to dialogue, one-on-one and within groups, to decompress, to address pent-up feelings, unanswered questions, clarify language and provide support.

The Diversity Mountain is a tough climb. All who dare its climb must be confident – feel safe with facilitators who will be there with harness, belays and rappels to secure the climb. The peak is above the tree line, above the clouds, awaiting all who dare. Once arrived, the silent pause, the breathtaking view – diversity mountaineers no longer to be and live the same.

The beginning of such conferences can set the stage. It was therefore a required core value to dedicate quality time to create conference norms that genuinely respected each individual’s presence, regardless of the personal knapsack they brought with them.

The following are conference community norms presented in order to establish core values by which to participate.

BE FULLY PRESENT:  In mind, body, and spirit. You are part of a community and you matter.  Honor yourself and the community by being fully present.
SPEAK FROM THE ‘I’ PERSPECTIVE:  The “We”, “Us”, “They” may not be present to disagree and/or refute.
BE SELF-RESPONSIBLE AND SELF-CHALLENGING:  You are responsible for your own learning. Challenge yourself as to what you say, when you choose to say it, and when you need to challenge and be challenged.
LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN:  Allow others to fully finish. Allow time to process and reflect so that what was said can settle… reflect… then respond.
EXAMINE DISCOMFORT:  Do not shy away but rather lean into discomfort. Allow for feeling unsettled. There are reasons why such feelings and emotions surface. Become aware what is behind the discomfort.
BE CRISP:  Say what is core.
CONFIDENTIALITY:  Trust, safety, sensitivity, compassion, empathy, and respect are necessary core values that will guide all participants throughout the journey.  The spirit of confidentiality must be honored.
EXPERIMENT WITH NEW BEHAVIORS EXPANDING YOUR RANGE OF RESPONSES:  It is good to try new ways by which to express your awareness and thinking.  The visual and performing arts are vehicles of expression. Journaling can provide insights and reflection.
ACCEPT CONFLICT AND RESOLUTION AS A NECESSARY CATALYST FOR LEARNING:  Learning is a process that requires give and take. Agree to disagree but don’t stop communicating, listening, and resolving conflicts.
BE COMFORTABLE WITH SILENCE:  Let us listen actively to each other. Silence can provide insights and awareness without a word being spoken.
SUSPEND JUDGEMENT:  Allow judgment to remain suspended regarding anothers’ comments and feelings. Deliberate conscientiously.
READINESS: Change is the result of a process that takes time, effort and readiness. Our readiness to move forward may or may not coincide with the readiness of others. Allow others to discover their own readiness to grow and change.
SEEK DISCOURSE:  Dialogue with people who have different views and beliefs, not to judge, win a debate or prove them wrong, but to understand their perspectives and beliefs. Share your story with others. Discover common ground with others.

“If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings.”
Paulo Freire 1921-1997 ~
Author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed first written in Portuguese in 1968. It was first published in English in 1970, in a translation by Myra Ramos.  The book is considered one of the foundational texts of critical pedagogy.