By: Becky Graham
On Thursday, September 21, 2017, Dr. Jose Soto, Vice President in charge of Access, Equity, and Diversity at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, NE, paid a visit to Western Illinois University-Quad Cities to discuss diversity on campus. Dr. Soto spent the day with various administrators touring campus and learning about our area. He then led a roughly 90-minute discussion with faculty and staff about what WIU-QC is currently doing to promote diversity and what specific things could be done to improve access, equity, diversity, and inclusion on our campus. At 3:30 pm, LASSO (Liberal Arts & Science Student Organization) sponsored a presentation for students where Dr. Soto addressed diversity on campus and in our communities, specifically focusing on common barriers to diversity and what students can do to begin to make lasting changes. The Quad Cities Cultural Alliance (QCCA) also helped with the coordination of these events.
Dr. Soto began his presentation, titled “Are you committed to diversity? Prove it!”, by explaining the various ways that diversity is not just a higher education issue. Diversity is a social, political, economic, legal, and moral issue and it isn’t just about race or ethnicity. Diversity includes gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, socioeconomic class, and so much more. Part of what makes this such a difficult issue is that diversity, by its very nature, disrupts the status quo, forces people to face things they would rather ignore, and can contradict core religious and/or political beliefs and beliefs about social norms. This makes it difficult and uncomfortable to do the very thing that Dr. Soto says is most important: have an open and honest conversation about diversity. An open and honest conversation is one that involves both sides (those who feel they are being oppressed/excluded/denied equality as well as those who are viewed as the “oppressors”) and requires that both sides actually listen to one another. Each person has their own personality, perspective, and perceptions – their own unique life experiences – that shape the way they feel about issues of diversity and fairness, and we, both as individuals and as a society, cannot move forward regarding this issue until we are able to listen to each other, explain our own perspectives, perceptions, and experiences, and open ourselves to hear and understand someone else’s position.
Dr. Soto stressed that these conversations are extremely important, but that there are a few things that need to happen before a successful conversation about diversity and inclusion can take place. First, there are a few realities that students need to be aware of, according to Dr. Soto. Students need to realize that racism, sexism, ageism, etc. do still exist, but they are often more subtle and complex than they were in the past. People likely do not consider themselves “racist” or “sexist” and may not recognize their own bias, and name calling will not help to foster an open and honest conversation. Students who are willing to take steps to engage in these conversations need to be aware that the goal of such a conversation isn’t to “win” or to “fix” the other person, the goal is to help them to see someone else’s point-of-view and to give them something to think about, and for the student to better understand why the other person feels the way they do. One conversation is not likely to wipe out a lifetime of belief and behavior or to grant complete understanding of anyone’s viewpoint, but it could be the seed that grows into change later.
It is also important for students to understand that not everyone is going to agree with them and not everyone even believes that diversity or cultural competence is important or worthy of their time. Those people aren’t ready to have an open and honest conversation about the issue and attempts to do so are likely to be met with hostility. Of those who are willing to consider that diversity is something worth their time and effort, many will believe that “tolerance” and “compliance with the law” are sufficient. According to Dr. Soto, “welcoming diversity requires moving beyond ‘tolerance’ or ‘compliance’” and moving toward an attitude of doing what is right, because it is right, but tolerance and compliance at least show a willingness to think about the issue and, hopefully, an openness to having the important conversations.
Second, students need to take stock of themselves and their own biases, personalities, perspectives, perceptions, and experiences before they can engage others in open and honest conversation about diversity. Everyone has their own set of beliefs, their own unique life experience, and their own biases and blind spots and it is extremely important to identify what those beliefs and biases are and to understand where they came from before engaging in conversations with others about their beliefs and biases. When asked what one thing Dr. Soto would like students to take away from his presentation, he came back to this point: everything begins with self-awareness.
The very first thing students can do is to acknowledge that they have biases and blind spots, it’s part of being human. Human beings can only perceive so much and our perceptions shape our ideas about the world. We are biologically wired to find patterns, to see “what doesn’t belong” and to categorize things (and people) accordingly. That doesn’t mean everyone is doomed to live a life of ignorance and intolerance, but it does mean that students need to be aware of this tendency and take the time to take a second look, to evaluate and reconsider what they think they see, and to make a commitment not to use their “default perception” to shape their decisions.
Second, students should sit down and think about how they actually feel about things like race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, gender, age, disability, etc. Examine those initial feelings and think about why they feel that way – what life-experience brought about that belief? Are these feelings and beliefs things they want to hold, or are they carried over from their parents, churches, friends, or society? This self-examination will help them to be able to discuss their own perspectives in a coherent manner with other. It also provides a path to self-improvement.
It was with that idea that Dr. Soto ended his presentation by issuing a challenge – both to students individually and to our University as a whole – that anytime one engages in honest self-reflection and finds that their reality doesn’t live up to their rhetoric, they find a way to make a change. When one finds that their feelings and actions don’t live up to the beliefs they say they hold, then Dr. Soto says there are only two options: either change your rhetoric to match your reality or change your reality to match your rhetoric. Either be honest and admit that you fall into the camp of people who don’t value diversity, either in general, or regarding a specific group of people, or change your behavior to match your stated beliefs.
Dr. Soto left students with many important things to think about and some tools they can use to make important changes in themselves, first, and then to take that change to others within our campus, and out into our community. Every person who attended Dr. Soto’s presentation, or who reads this article, will hopefully take the time to become self-aware of their own position regarding diversity, to work on those areas of themselves where their reality doesn’t live up to their rhetoric, and to engage in open, honest, and respective conversations with people on both sides of the issue. Taking these steps will not be easy, but they are worth the time and effort and difficulty, as they foster personal growth and change that can be transformed into positive change on campus and in our communities.