This article describes the deep self-reflection, characteristic attitudes, and critical skills that will help educators act as change agents to create truly multicultural environments in their schools and organizations and to build cultural bridges between their students.
The topic in the senior sociology class I was teaching was race relations. In a school district struggling with issues of race, this can be a very heated discussion. Michelle, a white student, was sharing her views on race with the class. Everyone appeared to be listening, with some students jotting down notes while others were shaking their heads in agreement or disagreement.
Shawn caught my eye. His body language told me he did not agree with anything she was saying. His hand shot up several times, and I signaled to him that I saw his hand and would give him a chance to respond. When Michelle finished speaking, I turned to Shawn and asked if he would like to respond. This was the moment he had been waiting for. I said, “Before you respond, paraphrase what Michelle said.” Shawn turned to Michelle, paraphrasing what he had heard and ending with the question, “Did I hear you correctly?” Michelle replied that he had not and proceeded to restate what she had previously said, paying particular attention to clearing up the areas he had heard inaccurately.
As a classroom teacher, I have witnessed discussions about race result in shouting matches with tempers flaring and no listening or understanding occurring. What was different about this class was that I had learned that creating an environment where difficult discussions can take place and a diversity of opinions can be expressed and heard requires skills and strategies. The exchange between Shawn and Michelle provided a “teachable moment” for my students. We discussed what could have happened if Shawn had not paraphrased what he had heard and Michelle had not been able to repeat what she had shared. Shawn shared what he was feeling as he “listened” to Michelle and what had prevented him from hearing what she had really said. We talked about the value of active listening and how to use these skills when we discuss topics that provoke strong emotions and feelings.
Being a change agent
After this sociology class was over, I reflected on the reasons our classroom conversations on race were much different than in previous years. An important reason was that I was on my own journey as a teacher.
I agree with Linda Lantieri and Janet Patti, authors of Waging Peace in Our Schools (1996), who wrote that “one of the most pressing problems in schools and among youth in general is cultural and racial bias” (p. 89). My challenge, then in the classroom and now at the district level, is helping students and teachers communicate across cultures by examining their feelings about racial and cultural differences.
When I was first introduced to the notion that an equity change agent was someone who would work within the school setting to bring about equity, I imagined I would be the facilitator, helping children to learn about each other and how to get along. Valuing diversity would be about educating children. I did not think in terms of examining my own biases about people who were different from me. What I have learned is that before I could authentically work with others to overcome bias and bigotry, I had to first do my own internal work. Part of that work included how I handled conflict around these issues and inadvertently contributed to the escalation of these conflicts.
I had to acknowledge that my attitudes and feelings about people who were “other” had been influenced by those who had raised me. Sometimes those messages were loud and clear; other times they were quiet and subtle. But they conveyed to me how I should feel, what I should think, and whom I could and could not trust. The “teachings” included personal experiences, hearsay, and stories handed down to them and on to me. Having internalized many of those messages and having experiences of my own that confirmed those notions led me to conclude that those who had raised me were right. Their truth had become my truth.
Many people reject the notion that they have been influenced at all by these so-called messages. But when given time and opportunity in a non-hostile environment that allows for reflection, they can acknowledge the influences of those who raised them. Some buy into the bias and bigotry as I did and act accordingly. Others choose to break the cycle early on and cross the invisible boundaries that keep us from interacting with others who are different from us. Crossing those boundaries allows us to challenge stereotypes that we have learned. Realizing that ignorance and prejudice have informed our view of the world and of its people often causes us to struggle within ourselves. This is the place where we begin to consider becoming a change agent by working on ourselves first. That work includes unlearning the myths that have kept us disconnected from people who are different from us and beginning to discuss and understand how power and unearned advantage serve as tools of oppression.
Once we have accepted the challenge to work on ourselves first and acknowledge that it is a lifelong journey, we can begin to help others we meet along the way. I now define a change agent as someone:
who has the skills and commitment to enable others to behave differently by offering them opportunities to learn and grow in positive ways
who acknowledges that lasting change takes time and allows for self-development
who helps to facilitate personal, professional, and systemic change in ways that promote and foster social responsibility, equity, and justice
Rethinking conflict around issues of
Difference is at the center of most conflicts. When we consider multicultural education, too often the concept itself creates fear, controversy, excitement, and conflict. Conflict within the context of multicultural education can come in various forms of philosophical debates. For a school district courageous enough to truly embrace multiculturalism, conflict may come in the form of resistance from within.
Conflict is viewed by many educators as something to avoid at all costs and is often handled in ways that allow for the least amount of constructive learning. Educators facilitating classrooms where expressions of difference occur must come to grips with conflict as a tool of change. It must be viewed as an opportunity for growing and learning. Before that can happen, it is necessary that educators facilitating those classrooms review and analyze the messages they received about conflict as they grew up.
As part of my work with teachers, I invite them to remember the messages they received, particularly when they were young, about conflict. Their responses include: “Don’t talk back,” “Never disagree in public,” “It’s not what you say but how you say it,” “Just walk away,” and “Don’t be afraid to share your views.” There were gender-specific remembered voices: “Ladies don’t fight,” “Let your husband have the last word,” and “Don’t hit girls.” Note the tendency to equate conflict with violence.
There were culturally specific responses as well: “Never argue with white people,” and “Don’t argue with those people because they’ll get violent.” However, there are cultural groups for whom a boisterous exchange of ideas is not considered to be a conflict.
On a nonverbal level, teachers often share that the overriding messages they received were that nothing good came out of conflict and to avoid it at all costs. Nonverbal messages were as powerful, if not more so, than verbal messages.
After hearing the messages teachers recalled, I would ask the group, “What impact have these messages had on how you handle conflict today?” Many stated that they had never taken the time or had the opportunity to think about these messages. One said, “I deal with conflict every day, and I’ve never thought about how I feel about it.”
When I asked these same teachers about messages they give their children about handling conflict, verbal and nonverbal, their messages ranged from “fight back” to “avoid.” When I ask the teachers to share with each other how these messages help or hinder their work with students, their responses often indicate that their personal reactions to conflict interfere with their work with students. They agree that this is an area we need to discuss and work on.
Before I could create an environment where expressions of difference could occur, I also had to gain a better understanding of my own conflict style. I had to develop new skills and behaviors that would not shut down dialogue but allow it to open up. I had to be willing to intervene and interrupt bias when it occurred. Learning new skills was relatively easy. Using them was a challenge. Internalizing them took time.
Multicultural education: A gift or “one more
thing to do”?
I was approached one day by a teacher who viewed multicultural education as “one more thing to do” that “will pass like other programs that come and go.” Frustrated by having to do “one more thing,” she blurted out, “I don’t have time to teach about every ethnic group in my class!”
That statement provided an incredible learning opportunity for me. First, it helped me to understand her definition of what multicultural education is and how it should be delivered. Second, it gave me the title for a workshop that would offer the skills and strategies that are necessary if multicultural education is to be delivered in an authentic way. Rather than something that has to be done whether we like it or not, multicultural education is and should be viewed as a gift, a wonderful opportunity to learn about ourselves and others by recognizing that we are all experts on our own lives and experiences.
The challenge is to rethink our views and explore our feelings of discomfort when working toward education that is multicultural. What is getting in our way? My experience has been that a large part of the resistance is the “how to” – the delivery of such a program when teachers are already feeling overwhelmed and believe, as one teacher put it, there is “no room in the curriculum.”
Staff development programs that provide time and space for self-reflection, acknowledge that we are all at different places in our journey, and that devote adequate time to build the trust necessary for honest, deep discussions around difference are all too rare. These opportunities to learn about self and others, to build community, can help educators become culturally competent.
A culturally competent educator is one who takes responsibility for learning about his or her students and the experiences they bring with them into the classroom. The challenge is to incorporate their experiences and ways of knowing into their learning environment. In addition to knowing students individually and collectively, they also must learn skills and strategies to challenge racism and oppression as it exists in educational institutions.
In my experience, staff development is a key component in helping teachers teach and communicate across cultures. The one-shot, two-hour staff development session sends the message that learning in this area is not important, and it does not provide the time necessary to do the internal work necessary for change.
Creating multicultural educational
I believe that creating a respectful environment where learning can take place is the first step in embracing multiculturalism. In this respectful environment, trust can be developed, feelings can be expressed, and the sharing of ideas and experiences can begin.
Multicultural education is about learning many perspectives. Understanding points of view helps to de-escalate conflict and allows room for other stories and truths to be explored. These skills, strategies, and concepts are staples of most conflict resolution programs. Establishing rules for discussion and learning to use “active listening” skills help to develop a feeling of safety within small and large groups. Using “I-messages” to express one’s ideas and feelings allows room for many perspectives to be shared and heard. Paraphrasing information for clarity and acknowledging feelings that may surface allow communication to continue as individuals discuss and work through difficult, emotional topics.
The challenging messages that students bring with them into the classroom require effective educational strategies that encourage young people to determine their own truth. It is crucial that students have opportunities to understand and appreciate their own culture and make connections to and appreciate the culture and experiences of others. The price we pay for not allowing this growth and opportunity is the perpetuation of stereotypes, misunderstanding, and miscommunication that can often result in conflict that can lead to acts of violence. The open classroom environment enjoyed by Shawn and Michelle, the two students I mentioned earlier, was created with the direct teaching of conflict resolution skills and the infusion of multicultural concepts into the curriculum.
Such direct teaching will help bring schools and educators at all levels closer to Lantieri and Patti’s (1996) new vision of education that includes improving the social and emotional competence of children by teaching them life skills: “This set of skills and understandings is essential for every child. A child's emotional and social well-being should not be attended to only when emotional outbursts, physical fights, or racial slurs occur; we believe that the teaching of these skills and competencies in our schools is critical for our future survival” (p. 6).
Guidelines for challenging racism and other forms of oppression
1. Challenge discriminatory attitudes and behavior! Ignoring the issues will not make them go away, and silence can send the message that you are in agreement with such attitudes and behaviors. Make it clear that you will not tolerate racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual jokes or slurs, or any actions that demean any person or group. Your intervention may not always take place at the exact time or place of the incident, but the issue should be addressed promptly.
2. Expect tension and conflict and learn to manage it. Sensitive and deep-seated issues are unlikely to change without some struggle, and in many situations conflict is unavoidable. Face your fears and discomforts and remember that tension and conflict can be positive forces that foster growth.
3. Be aware of your own attitudes, stereotypes, and expectations, and be open to discovering the limitations they place on your perspective. None of us remain untouched by the discriminatory messages in our society. If you aren’t sure how to handle a situation, say so and seek the information or help that you need. Practice not getting defensive when discriminatory attitudes or behaviors are pointed out to you.
4. Actively listen to and learn from others” experiences. Don’t minimize, trivialize, or deny people’s concerns; make an effort to see situations through their eyes.
5. Use language and behavior that is non-biased and inclusive of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, disabilities, sexual orientation, class, age, or religion.
6. Provide accurate information to challenge stereotypes and biases. Take responsibility for educating yourself about your own and other people’s cultures. Do not expect people from different backgrounds to automatically educate you about their culture or history, or to explain racism or sexism to you. People are more willing to share when you take an active role and the learning is mutual.
7. Acknowledge diversity and avoid stereotypical thinking. Don’t ignore or pretend not to see differences. Acknowledging differences is not the problem, but stereotypes and negative judgments about differences are always hurtful because they generalize, limit, and deny people’s full humanity.
8. Be aware of your own hesitancy to intervene in these kinds of situations. Confront your own fears about interrupting discrimination, set your priorities, and take action.
9. Project a feeling of understanding, love, and support when confronting individuals about discriminatory behavior. Be nonjudgmental but know the bottom line: issues of human dignity, justice, and safety are nonnegotiable.
10. Establish standards of responsibility and behavior and hold yourself and others accountable. Demonstrate your personal and organizational commitment in practices, policies, and procedures, both formal and informal. Maintain high expectations for all people.
11. Be a role model and be willing to take the risks that leadership demands.
12. Work collectively with others. Organize and support efforts that combat prejudice and oppression in all its forms. Social change is a long-term struggle.
Copyright 1996 by Patti DeRosa, Change Works Consulting, 28 South Main Street #113, Randolph, MA 02368, 781 “986 “6150.
Lantieri, L. & Patti, J. (1996). Waging peace in our schools. Boston: Beacon Press.
This feature: James-Edwards, Mary. (1999) Multicultural Educators as Change Agents. Reaching Today’s Youth. Vol. 3 (2) pp. 17-21.