Nov 092011

Here is a very kind article written by Eric Jome that was written for “Identity,” which is Illinois State University’s online newsletter for diversity issues. The original article can be found here.

Dean of Students staff members receive cultural competence training

You can claim you have no pre-conceived notions about others, but that is simply not true. Somewhere, on some level, everyone has biases and prejudices. You may not always be conscious of them, but they certainly influence how you interact and communicate with others. It can be a sobering experience to realize this about yourself. It can also be a daunting, but ultimately liberating, experience to face those biases and move beyond them.

Facing up to personal bias and prejudice has been a cornerstone of cultural competence training programs for staff members in the Dean of Students Office. The ongoing training, organized by the unit’s 10-member Cultural Competence Committee, has helped A/P and Civil Service staff members and graduate assistants to confront and identify biases and find ways to move beyond them in order to better communicate with students and other campus constituencies. Associate Dean of Students Rick Olshak chairs the Cultural Competence Committee and feels that the overall mission of the Dean of Students Office has been greatly enhanced, and that staff members have benefitted from the training, both personally and professionally.

“A lot of us will say ‘I’m not prejudiced, I treat everyone equally,'” said Olshak. “The truth is we do have biases, and they cause us to treat some people differently. The ultimate purpose of the training is to move us beyond simply acknowledging and appreciating diversity and help us achieve a true level of understanding about others that allows us to be more open in our communications. The training sessions have been very empowering for staff members.”

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Apr 252011

Long before I arrived at his presentation tonight, I knew that an evening with Edward James Olmos was going to be rewarding. After all, here is my favorite actor from one of my favorite shows (Battlestar Galactica) who is a social activist coming to our campus to speak about one of my favorite topics (social justice). No matter what my expectations however, they were far surpassed by the man who took the stage tonight and shared his gifts and talent. In all it turned out to be two hours of my life that could not have been better spent anywhere else.

Leaving the house lights on so that he could see each of us, Olmos began by talking about his own identity, or more aptly identities. Thanks to my education I have long viewed race as an imperfect social construct that creates more problems than it settles, but it took Olmos to really bring this to life for me and help me appreciate the destructive power of racial identity. Olmos reflected on his identity as a Chicano; half-Mexican and half-Spanish, born in the United States. He talked about the power of an identity that was five hundred years old, commenting that he would not be who he was without this mixture of cultures, and the strength that he draws from both. But before he could be a Chicano, European or a Mexican, he had to be indigenous to the Americas, a history of forty thousand years. And even before that, he had to be Asian for many thousands of years before those people crossed the Bering Strait into North America. And of course before that, he had his roots in Africa, as do we all.

The point is an obvious but powerful one; all of humanity comes from Africa, and the reason we are “different” from one another now is because we took different migratory routes off of our original continent. What Olmos wanted us to remember was that we have more in common than we have separating us, a fact too often forgotten. He drew upon Battlestar Galactica to see how one amazing science fiction series dared to challenge us by making us think about what it means to be human, particularly when we might identify more with the machine-race Cylons than we do with humanity. And it was that show’s grappling with issues of human rights, suicide bombers, terrorism, reconciliation, and right to life versus right to choose that ultimately resulted in the cast and creators of Battlestar being invited to the United Nations to discuss those very same issues in detail. Continue reading »

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