Saturday, November 7, 2015

The New Us

One of my heroes, Maya Angelou, wrote, "It is time for parents to teach young children early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength." I'm willing to bet that most people would agree with this sentiment, at least on the surface.

Where things get complex is in the implementation of this. Sure, we can accept that diversity is beautiful. Even mainstream advertising makes sure that we see images of same-sex couples, persons with physical disabilities, racial differences and interracial families. The new "us" as a nation.

When we think about "US" as a school, community or organization, it can be somewhat more difficult to see the diversity which is so positively embodied in advertising campaigns - even, sometimes, our own. Biases and stereotypes creep their way into the ways we talk about others and the expectations we have for them.

I think of phrases I have overheard within the last year which illustrate these prejudices. To be clear, each of these was uttered by a well-meaning adult.

  • Her language skills make her sound caucasian.
  • Most of our Spanish speakers are scholarship kids.
  • He doesn't fit with our school's mission.
  • Can't we just have a separate transgender bathroom?
  • You can't expect him to do that because of his diagnosis.

Statements like these not only reveal our biases, but they also make "US" into more of a "US with a few THEMS thrown in." When we think, talk and behave this way, it shows that our "US" is pretty narrow and we have difficulty broadening who we are to include everyone.

Again, I want to be clear that the people who have uttered these statements are caring educators who want the best for their students. They work hard to meet the diverse needs of those within their schools and classrooms. But we all need to look at the ways in which we communicate to ensure that "US" is inclusive, strong and beautiful.

There is a growing body of evidence to show that all children benefit from diversity. A recent article in nprED explains why. But adults must be vigilant about communicating high-expectations, cultural awareness, an attitude of caring and a willingness to appreciate the contributions of everyone within our "US."

While adults may be lagging, there are strong and beautiful examples of students who are willing to embrace the new "US." I think about my niece, Liney, who is in 9th grade. She joined our family in April of 2000 when she flew to Newark airport from Korea. In her 14 years, she has experienced a variety of well-meaning, highly insensitive remarks and questions. As she has gotten older, she has learned how to address them with humor and a "really?" attitude.

In spite of dealing with her own struggles for inclusion, Liney has fully embraced the new "US" and works hard to build community with everyone. She is an active member of the Gay-Straight Alliance at her school. She has a diverse community of friends. She ensures that classmates with disabilities are treated equally - and more importantly - as friends.

I am particularly grateful to Liney for the caring and inclusive way she has befriended my son who is on the autism spectrum. She has never used language like "he can't do that" or "he just doesn't get it" - both of which have been true at various parts of his life. Rather, she takes the time to explain, show, help and include him in all the parts of the "US" that make up our family.

It is a beautiful and strong thing, as Maya Angelou suggests. But I have come to realize that for Liney, it is not a difficult thing. Rather, it is a part of who she is and how she operates. She accepts and is kind, but more importantly, she works to include and appreciate the contributions of everyone. And her actions, as well as her language, support that mindset.

Educators (and all adults) have a lot to learn from Liney. We must be careful with our thinking, be careful with our words, understand where others are coming from, recognize and acknowledge the contributions of everyone, and understand that we all benefit from diversity. This last piece may be why we falter. Many people feel that diversity and inclusion benefit only the THEMS - the kids who receive financial aid, the students of color, the kids on the spectrum. Not so. We all must understand that diversity makes a better "US" and we must be certain to communicate that in all we say and do.

Liney hanging out with her "US."


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