Practice What You Preach

I work in diversity and inclusion at a university in the Netherlands. I am also an anthropologist. Anthropology helps me keep my head sane in an insane world. It helps me figure out how any given culture works, how to enter and strategize to move forward, and even attempt to change it. It helps me not to take things so personally. Study, analyze, strategize, and enter. I understand that people are merely the product of their respective cultures, cultures that have taken generations and literally hundreds to thousands of years to form. Cultural change can be revolutionary, but it can equally be a long and gradual process. As strong as any given culture is, there are devices to make sure the culture stays in tact. Shaming, ridicule, ostracism, or even death have been used against those who had the gall to try to implement change. As an anthropologist I have also been trained to be reflexive, to always consider and reconsider my own role in the story that I am uncovering. We understand that we are not totally objective, so you learn to study yourself as the observer, participant, researcher. Being an anthropologist helps, but it doesn’t always make it easier. It does not make the insensitivity, ignorance or direct resistance you encounter sting any less, you can just rationalize it away, or store it up in your learning arsenal.

Lately I give a lot of presentations. As part of my position I am repeatedly thrust in front of people to talk about diversity and inclusion issues. I give them in my own style, which is not necessarily the standard academic style. I overheard a co-presenter state: “She is good, but she is a story teller, my presentation has content.” Honestly, that one stung, but only confirmed once again where I am and what we are up against. My message in my presentations is generally the same, the encouragement for validation of everyone’s story, and the appreciation of the richness of all of our stories together. We live in a culture where one story has become the dominant, highly valued one, and everything else is less than or flat-out dismissed. This adulation of the dominant narrative as the only valid narrative, inherently is paired with all kinds of exclusionary practices as performed in any kind of “ism” you can imagine. Diversity to me then is not about how many of “those” do you have present, it is not a mere visual exercise. Can you accommodate the fact that people act, think, bring different values and behaviors into this arena where the dominant narrative is king? Can you acknowledge story telling for instance, a standard indigenous method of transferring information for thousands of years, as a valid method, or do you immediately dismiss it as cute, entertaining, but definitely less than? Can you truly honor somebody’s story, even the ones that seem so different than yours?

I work with students and teachers and help them navigate what diversity and inclusion might look like, but also what they are up against, and how their own cultural conditioning can serve as a hindrance. Lastly, I try to inspire them and give them hope. Hasan Davis, former Commissioner of Juvenile Justice in Kentucky talks about the concept of “hope dealing”. I guess that is what I am trying to do. I don’t deal in “best practice” answers, because my indigenous viewpoint believes that the answers evolve out of what we create together. There is no such thing as a “best practice” only practices that work well under specific circumstances at a specific point in time. What works wonderfully today might fail tomorrow. In this diversity work, once you figure out how things work and what you might be up against, and understand that you might not receive positive feedback for your efforts to implement change, you must do it anyway. You must realize that you are never alone and find like-minded people who can support and inspire you, and go for it anyway. Study, analyze, strategize, and enter… again, and again, and again. More than anything you have to have vision, “hope” as Hasan Davis would say, and you have to be brave. You must be reflexive and be aware of your own wounds that might be reinjured as you are doing this work. You must learn to eat micro-aggressions for breakfast, lunch, and diner and spit them out like sunflower seed shells.

After I leave the world of work I have to deal with the educational arena on behalf of my sons, two black teenage males, non-native Dutch speakers, one of which with a learning disability. That alone is three strikes against you in the Dutch educational system. And first hand I am introduced into a system steeped in rules and regulations, gatekeeping, and a predilection to exclude rather than include. “Your son answers all the questions in every class (correctly). Can you please talk with him to give other children a chance to answer?” Needless to say my son’s enthusiasm for learning and his educational participation in class has decreased, while his socializing has gone up, go figure. He is placed on an educational level too low for his abilities, a standard practice for children of color, and the roads up to the appropriate level are cumbersome and full of obstacles. For my other son, a computer program – evidence based I’m sure – provided the information that his personality would not fit their program, and hence they recommended he seek hail elsewhere. They chose a Dutch language based program for a non-native Dutch speaker and overlooked the option to talk with his teacher, mentor, or other people who could give some insight. A missed opportunity, but fits with exclusionary policy practices. And so I fight.

This system seems intent on spitting my children out for not fitting, rather than embrace them. I have met some wonderful, supportive teachers and counselors, but unfortunately they are the exception rather than the norm. Yet it is these people that give me hope, and inspiration. There are days when I want to quit, when I am tired of fighting for the dignity of my children. On some grand spiritual level I could say that I am getting the life experience so I can be better in my job. The universe is providing me with daily lessons so I can be a better advocate and hope dealer for my students and teachers in the university setting. That might be true, but honestly sometimes it just sucks, and I am just tired of fighting. But what kind of hypocrite would I be to encourage people to keep going, and sit down by the sidelines myself? My students who have been on the brink of quitting tell me of that one teacher, advisor, or counselor who made a difference. I meet teachers and other professionals who eagerly seek to make a difference. They might not be in the majority, but they are there. So I take a minute to get quiet and honor and acknowledge all of those hope dealers as my Native American godmother has taught me. I say “Aho Mitakuye Oyasin” … me an all my relations. I am reminded that I am not in this alone and that this is a battle for the long haul. As my anthropology teachers once taught me, cultural change can be revolutionary, but can also be a long process. We study, analyze, strategize, and enter…. again, again, and again.

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