This summary was written for the December 2011 newsletter by Megan Kehrein, Senior Sociology major with an emphasis in Inequality and Globalization, University of Idaho
At the University of Idaho, this semester’s leadership conference focused on the importance of social justice and diversity education for up-and-coming leaders. The conference took place on Saturday, October 15th on the Moscow campus and featured opening and closing sessions with Dr. Maura Cullen, a nationally renowned speaker on diversity issues, and break-out sessions with staff and faculty from all corners of campus.
Opening Session. In the opening session, Dr. Cullen framed issues related to diversity, power, and privilege in a very accessible manner. Her discussion points were outlined through two different lenses: She focused on the ways in which the well intentioned things we do and say can hurt others, and on the ways in which society treats people differently based on their inherent characteristics. Specifically, Dr. Cullen talked about how even the best intentions can have a negative impact. She was able to support this with examples from her own experiences as a lesbian. Dr. Cullen also went into what she called the “pile-on principle,” describing that the reactions we see when we have unintentionally offended someone by doing or saying something non-inclusive are often single-moment snapshots of their lives. Her analogy continued when she explained that a lot of folks face these moments frequently: When they continually face discrimination, it eventually piles up, causing their explosive reaction. If we had videos of people’s lives we could see the pile-up of all the adversity they face, instead of just the final reaction witnessed. Dr. Cullen argued that this perspective has the potential to change our perception of others. Another idea she emphasized is that words do matter: Sometimes saying nothing can be as bad as saying the wrong thing. She then encouraged her audience to work on communicating more effectively with the people in that day’s breakout sessions.
Break-Out Sessions. In the late morning and early afternoon participants chose two of thirteen unique sessions that focused on everything from inclusion and diversity awareness to service work and studying abroad. I attended Dr. Cullen’s “Mr. Fix-It and Friends Go to Diversity Training” and a “Stop the Hate” session. Dr. Cullen’s break-out session gave examples of five different characters that are often found when conversations about diversity take place. Participants were encouraged to pick out the character that they identified with most, and the one that bothered them the most. Then we worked together to identify non-productive behaviors that diminish effectiveness, and we found alternatives to improve group dynamics.
The “Stop the Hate” training was led by Sasha Johnson, James Wagner, and Jami Hinshaw, professionals from UI Housing. The training defined bias incidents and hate crimes, and identified resources for combatting hate and bias on campus, including the Dean of Students Office and the Office of Human Rights, Access, and Inclusion. The Stop the Hate presentation also focused on the importance of allies and how to develop as an ally. One definition of an ally was “someone in a group that has privilege who supports and is an activist for the group without power.” The session ended with participants signing a “Respect” pledge, agreeing to respect others and create an environment that values both similarities and differences.
Closing Session. Participants then reconvened in a closing session with Dr. Cullen. In this program, Dr. Cullen focused on things audience members could do to transform the quality and effectiveness of their interactions. She shared statements that well-intentioned people commonly use without realizing how they may be hurtful and offensive. She then provided the audience with alternatives and more effective responses. One strategy that she shared for responding to hurtful statements was BAR—Breathe, Analyze, and then Respond. By the end of the session, Dr. Cullen had helped students recognize why speaking and acting inclusively is important and gave them simple, practical steps to implement their newfound diversity skills in the future.
As a student leader within the LGBTQ community on campus, this conference provided me with information about a valuable resource on campus, Stop the Hate, and gave me better ways to explain why inclusion is important to the folks I interact with on a daily basis. Dr. Cullen’s explanation of why inclusion matters was very accessible; as a student of race, gender and queer theory, my explanations of privilege and power have always been very theoretical and wordy. Now I have a way to engage other students on issues of diversity and social justice without losing my audience. I was also given a lens with which to examine my own actions and reactions. I was able to see things that I have been doing things that are ineffective at best. For instance, during Dr. Cullen’s break-out session I realized I identified with one of the diversity training characters. This person was passionate, but tired of explaining why the cause mattered. This made the character appear aggressive at times. Dr. Cullen shared constructive ways for improvement in the future: I learned to listen carefully, breath, and analyze what would be the most effective way to win people over for my cause before actually addressing the situation. Overall, I would say the conference was a huge success. As a sociology major and diversity and stratification certificate recipient, I gained a lot of useful tools and information. All conference content was framed so people at all levels of diversity education could benefit.
For more information about Dr. Cullen’s training, see her book, “35 Dumb Things Well Intended People Say,” and visit her website: www.mauracullen.com.