Sunday, May 6, 2012

Skills for Welcoming Difference, Part I

During our "New Neighbors" presentation at International Reading Association (see previous post) we discussed skills for welcoming new arrivals. Such skills can be

  • consciously chosen as effective strategies for interacting across culture, race and other difference; 
  • adopted as guidelines for individuals or groups; 
  • used as evaluation criteria for projects and events; and
  • modeled for others.

Here are a few:

1. "How Fascinating!"

When author Margy Burns Knight and I present our book, Africa is Not a Country, to young elementary students, we frequently hear a similar response when we get to the entry describing three girls walking to school in Cairo, Egypt. Because she's always running late, we explain, one of the students has stopped to pick up breakfast on the way: beans in pita bread. Predictably, we hear a chorus of "Ewwww!"

We recognize the opportunity for a teachable moment. Stopping the presentation, I call attention to the response and discuss how we sometimes feel anxiety when we encounter something unfamiliar, and  react by labeling it "weird."

"But that's like taking a big step away from the new situation or person," I point out, "and you might miss discovering something wonderful, maybe a new friend." I challenge the students to notice whenever they feel that "Weird!" response coming on, and substitute the phrase, "How fascinating!"

We resume the slide show, and soon the entire class is responding with enthusiasm to their first encounters with the daily lives of children in African countries - "How fascinating!"

At this point, of course, it's just a silly exercise, but with practice, we can actually retrain our brain's responses to welcome new ideas, experiences and people.

2. Cultural Humility

The practice of yoga often includes an introduction to the concept of "Beginner Mind," in which one assumes a complete lack of knowledge and approaches a situation with a completely open mind. This is a useful choice to make when interacting with people whose backgrounds are very different from yours.

Especially those of us raised as members of dominant cultures may unwittingly harbor assumptions of our culture's superiority, and unbeknownst to ourselves, make comparisons and judgments about a different culture. As the host culture, we may think of ourselves as the ones with the most to give. An attitude of cultural humility allows us to suspend these evaluations and simply be open to receiving and discovering the newness in front of us.

3. Examining Difference through the Lens of Commonality

When planning connections between diverse communities - in this case long-term residents with new arrivals - it's useful to start with what we have in common. For example, in a discussion following a shared book such as A Path of Stars, we can start talking about relationships with grandparents, family stories, journeys, the love of the natural world - all universal aspects of the human experience.

This approach sets up important understandings that foster a respectful exchange among equals:

  • Everyone has a story; every story matters.
  • We have far more in common than we do differences.
  • We can explore and appreciate our differences without making anyone alien or exotic.

1 comment:

Michelle Cusolito said...

Looking forward to Part 2. Just tweeted this one.