Daily I am reminded why diversity and inclusion efforts are imperative in making a better world. I see massive inequality play out in the news and frustration all over my Facebook feed. I interact with parents and educators sharing personal stories of hurtful moments and little victories and observe my own children trying to navigate and understand these complex issues and the microaggressions happening all around them.
I have chosen to live in Evanston because I believe there is incredible potential here, a community where so many want to live with others who share their beliefs that diversity is something to be celebrated and inclusion is for everyone and is something to strive for in every facet of life. It is the reason many of us have chosen to live in Evanston or return to Evanston, wanting to be surrounded by all different types of people and families. It is the reason Evanston can help set the standard for living in a diverse community where everyone’s experience is truly considered, included and valued and where equitable policies and systems are the norm.
As a consultant, I find this is a great asset. Rarely do I need to convince people that diversity is important. I was truly inspired that over 150 parents attended the first session of the series sponsored by the Evanston/Skokie PTA Council. We ran out of chairs, people sat on the floor and stood listening in the hall. Many parents in Evanston are trying to do something for their children that they have never seen modeled. I applaud their willingness to recognize when they need help. The commitment of parents wanting to learn how to better navigate issues of diversity and inclusion with their kids on a random Tuesday night, my experiences at Cherry Preschool and so many other moments have signified to me how much potential there is and validated my choice to raise kids here.
We have to be intentional about having hard conversations. Kids need context; without it they will always default to privilege and interpret a situation as the fault of the person who is different. We all need to explore our own bias and privilege and consider the ways we are impacted by inequality, so that we can provide our kids with a context that is accurate and that explains their community and experiences in a meaningful and thoughtful way.
Diversity and inclusion are most powerfully embedded in a community when we stop believing this struggle is for one community, one type of people, or something we are participating in for somebody else’s children. We are all impacted by inequality in a multitude of ways and we all have the ability to do something about it. Diversity and inclusion are for everyone. When everyone feels welcomed and safe, the rising tide does truly lift all boats. The systemic change we need is massive in order for justice to be a reality for everyone. Individually this can feel overwhelming and futile. And yet, this is how change works. Individuals need to determine their sphere of influence (their kids, their classrooms, their work environments, their neighborhoods) and get to work.
After years teaching about these issues, I have found that an essential part of that process is meeting people where they are and creating moments of understanding that can be built upon. It can be difficult not to judge someone for their perspective, to get frustrated by their blind spots and forget our own journey and experiences that helped inform our perspective. However, I have found that truly changing hearts and minds requires engagement without judgment, allowing people to make mistakes, just as I did.
What is clear to me now, more than ever, is that we are often not having the same conversation. Our experience can be so different, given all the intersections of identities, that we have a hard time synthesizing how our experience can be so varied from somebody else’s. Rather than grapple with that inconsistency, it is usually easier to assume that the person who has a different worldview is wrong. Somehow we need to understand that my perception of your experience is not more valid than your experience. While I don’t experience racial profiling, police brutality, disproportionate discipline, etc., that does not mean that it doesn’t exist for others.
I am sure my own experience living as both a person with significant privilege as a white, upper middle class, educated, abled U.S. citizen coupled with the inequality I have faced as a woman and a member of the LGBT community has given me the opportunity to see how different the world can be depending on who you are. I understand how easy it can be to not feel privileged despite being decidedly so. My own journey as a youth who attended private schools and navigated elite circles led to a young adult with many blind spots. My lack of experience with poverty and racism allowed me to have a world-view that did not reflect the experiences of others. Without understanding that privilege and inequality are systemic, one can easily believe that only individuals are responsible for their problems and successes, meritocracy is a reality, success is always about effort, wealth and happiness are attainable for all if they would just pull on those bootstraps.
While my journey is far from over, I am a bit in awe of how much has changed in my perspective. It is my own journey that informs my work, knowing that this type of growth is possible if given the right, safe opportunities to be challenged.
I was fortunate to have mentors, friends and educators who challenged me to think more broadly and deeply, and it changed me forever. People met me where I was, trusted that my intentions were good even if my words and deeds were imperfect, and continued to engage with me until I could fully grasp the true gift that they were giving me. Because of this, I don’t think anybody is incapable of change. I do think some need optimal conditions to truly hear. At the center of my work will always be the goal of balancing safety and risk. I want to push people to go beyond their comfort zone and embrace new ideas, new language for understanding inequality, and to take responsibility for their role in improving the world within their reach without feeling like they were made to feel vulnerable past the point of feeling safe and respected.
In many ways, Evanston can be the benchmark for other municipalities that want to create a diverse community. This is why I have focused so much of my professional attention here, and so that my own children can benefit from living in a community that is providing such a rich foundation for living in a global world. Unfortunately, as Evanstonians, at times we let the idea of ourselves keep us from making Evanston a truly inclusive place. We can be so invested in our idea of ourselves as progressives, we can struggle to see how we personally might be an obstacle to inclusion. When people call our attention to our imperfections, instead of appreciating how difficult it might have been for the person to challenge us and acknowledging what a gift it is when someone helps you see a blind spot, we can reject their assessment and often the person themselves. We can believe that we don’t need to reflect more on our language and actions, learn more about our bias or engage more in change. We can believe that the very act of living in Evanston is enough. We can stop at being “diverse” without ever having true inclusion.
I am hoping that in 2015 all of us can see there is more we can do and reimagine our role in diversity and inclusion. Here are some ideas to get started and keep going:
1. Educate yourself and your children.
2. Think proactively about how you can help create spaces where everyone feels included.
3. Listen to people of color and other marginalized communities and support their voices.
4. Continually recognize that you make these commitments to create change for yourself, not for a marginalized other. Diversity and inclusion are for all of us.
5. Consider your language and who may feel hurt or left out by the words you choose.
6. Don’t quit when you make mistakes. Forgive yourself and others when somebody falls short or makes a mistake so you can remain present to the challenges, stay engaged and keep learning.
7. Integrate your bookshelves, your toy shelves and your lives in meaningful ways.
8. Think strategically about making sure your goals for diversity and inclusion rely on reciprocal exchanges. This may require you to move out of your comfort zone at times.
9. Notice who is absent from the spaces you are in and consider what it would take to make that a truly inclusive space.
10. Start talking about inequality and privilege and determine what you can do to change the practices around you.
11. Speak up and do your part.
In 2015, I hope to see Evanstonians in all kinds of spaces continuing to engage in a thoughtful and intentional process to help our town meet its potential as a diverse and inclusive place for all. If we want Evanston to realize its potential, we need to reach ours individually. We need to consider every facet of our lives and consider what we can do to make it more inclusive.
It is a complicated web. Please start pulling a string.
By Heather Sweeney
On Dec. 6, as my 11-year-old daughter and I headed down the Kennedy Expressway to a protest at 63rd and King Drive, I wondered what was ahead of us and how I would explain it to her. She knew the protest was a response to the non-indictment of two white police officers who, in separate incidents, killed two unarmed African Americans. But, as most parents probably do, I struggle with trying to understand the complex race issues in our country, let alone how to chip away at explaining them to my child.
Well before attending this protest, my daughter told me she heard stereotypes spoken at school, saw division in the lunchroom and noticed kids treated unfairly by adults. I’ve seen her try to make sense of an incident in the grocery store and, no doubt, there are things happening around her that she doesn’t even know to critically question.
And, like her, I have heard murmured comments from adults like, “They don’t care about education like we do.” I have seen clear racial and ethnic divisions in social circles, and noticed lunch ladies who are treated disrespectfully by kids and other adults. Especially difficult is when a friend of color explained she cannot drive off the main road in the suburbs further north without risk of being pulled over. I have cringed at how I handled an interaction with a parent I did not know well. I wonder when I failed to notice a slight or an offense that someone who looks different from me would have noticed.
Shocked at my ignorance and floundering as a parent, I learned that this is to be expected, though not excused. White parents my age were raised in a time when “tolerance” and “colorblind” (which was certainly about race but could be expanded to, “let’s ignore anything about you that doesn’t match me”) were the accepted way to think. While those concepts were an improvement over the more racist rhetoric of the previous decades, they didn’t equip white people to think critically about racial or social justice. This seemed to explain why I didn’t have more context for understanding current day manifestations of inequities. For example, I saw segregation and poverty and never once thought either was due to systemic, institutionalized, government-endorsed racism.
In becoming aware that I have gaps in my understanding due to the norms of the era in which I was raised, I was also beginning to learn some pretty unsettling truths about the lived experience of people who didn’t look like me. I needed to decide what I was going to do. For one, I knew there were other parents who were in a similar boat as me: open but uneducated. I also knew that I like bringing people together and have become adept at it.
And, I knew where to turn. I am so fortunate to know Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan and Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan. Each of them is warm, funny, giving and, equally as important, forgiving. They are also both dynamos in their field of Diversity and Inclusion (through them I learned inclusion is not limited to kids with special needs but encompasses any group who is excluded based on a shared identity). And to top it off, both Gilo and Biz live right here in Evanston.
Between them and a group of dedicated District 65 parents, we knew that education around not just diversity but the really hard part of inclusion was what Evanston parents lacked and, no doubt, wanted. We were right. More parents than we could have hoped for came and listened for two hours as Biz delved into tough issues around privilege, oppression and bias. Biz created an environment that somehow allowed participants to be comfortable enough to be honest and uncomfortable enough to learn something new. And she even made us laugh…a lot!
Then these parents and other parents came again and talked for two more hours about how to handle scenarios that they likely have encountered or will encounter. These two sessions gave a framework and a shared vocabulary necessary for moving to the second half of the series when Dr. Logan will get us talking about action. Without a framework, our choice of action could have been hollow. We are primed and ready for Dr. Logan’s leadership to guide us in grappling with how to effectively take action to make an inclusive community. I hope you join us.
The time my daughter and I spent as protesters that Saturday in early December was, among many things, intense. It turns out she has not asked many questions – yet. But she listened and she heard vivid personal accounts of police torture and the pain of losing a loved one for no reason. She heard a white man say he wouldn’t speak more than a minute because he was there to hear black voices, not to speak over or for them. We both undoubtedly did not grasp some important lessons. But we are on the path with other Evanstonians, educating ourselves and looking for ways that reflect our personal gifts to take action right here in Evanston, so that we can make ours a more equitable and inclusive community.