Feb 26 2018

OPINION: We Are the Culture We Choose to Cultivate

Let’s Talk About It

On February 5th, 10th, and 11th, Piedmont chose to broaden the dialogue.  As member of Piedmont Appreciating Diversity Committee member and Council member Jen Cavenaugh affirmed at the beginning of the first ever series of Let’s Talk workshops — which were a series of meetings to address diversity, acceptance, and inclusive dialogue within Piedmont — “all great things start with people showing up to the table.”  Among the scattered coffee cups and Cuties oranges, members of the Piedmont community certainly did show up.

The event started with a mirroring activity, led by Sara Wicht, a consultant who often engages audiences in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program.  Encouraged to find a partner who each of us had not previously known, we took turns leading or following.  Staying connected in our physical actions took consistent eye contact, focus, and consideration to each others’ physical ability.

The activity set the tone for the entire meeting.  We were asked to relate the activity — and the focus it required — to the ways we go about engaging in vulnerable dialogue.  Truly engaging in a dialogue requires empathy and trust — an ability to navigate their sensitivities and abilities — as well as an awareness of oneself as an individual.

The rest of the meeting largely functioned off of this foundation of exploring trust.  We related the community of Piedmont as a whole to our own individual identities, feelings, and experiences.  As Piedmont is an affluent city — the median income is $202,000 per year according to the 2016 Census Data and 60% of the population is over 40 years old while 28% of the population is under age 19 — the community is largely stratified by age.  Piedmont is also home to 8,069 caucasian people, 1,499 foreign-born people, 2,018 Asian people, 649 multiracial people, 632 Hispanic people, 142 African-American people, 19 Native American people, and 6 Hawaiian or Pacific Islander people. This stratification of age and ethnicity results in a variety of generational or cultural mindsets, that we were able to see more clearly during a polling question section.  While 74% of participants full-heartedly agreed that they would want to be able to talk to neighbors about a variety of issues, the idealism began to crumble when confronted with reality.  50% of participants soon responded that “talking about race with neighbors could open a can of worms” and that it was “not worth it” sometimes. 49% of participants felt that only “sometimes” were they able to talk comfortably about religious or non-religious systems with their neighbors, while 9% felt uncomfortable.

As I shared with the entire group present, I see this split between idealism and reality as being due to a “cultural longing for agreement.  We have, in recent years of polarized politics and social issues, transformed ourselves into a culture that equates agreement with trust and friendship.  Disagreement, feels like a threat to understanding and empathy.  As we hold our personal beliefs very near to us — they form our identities, which often feel the need to safeguard relentlessly in a Trumpian era — the fear of disagreement precludes our sincere engagement on many issues.  When discussing issues and possibly disagreement seems connected to losing or gaining friends or community support, many freeze up.”

Indeed, even this meeting reflected a largely like-minded group.  As I shared to the group, “we have grown accustomed to our echo-chambers, but I believe we can apply the same sort of open empathy and trust to all people, regardless of whether we know they will agree with us or not.” Action must, and will, take place.  Especially after an activity that allowed us to organize our identity into seven different categories, and then quickly cross each aspect off one by one to leave the last one remaining. The Let’s Talk event brought more awareness to those who must “shed an identity everyday just to feel safe.” As an adult woman, Sara, spoke out: “privilege is not needing to shed an identity in everyday life.”  The Let’s Talk event confirmed that we must find ways to allow everyone to feel safe in their everyday life.  As an African-American woman reaffirmed to the group: “we must reinforce that anyone can have a positive social identity even if the community does not directly reflect it.”

For many, the desire to take this positive step was what brought them to conversation at Let’s Talk.  As we reflected on the first time we became aware of our racial identity, or considered the aspects of our identities that were most important to us, I noticed that the meeting drew upon members of the Piedmont community from all walks of life, and for all reasons.  Many adults present were parents of children in the elementary schools, hoping to better understand the culture of the high school.  Others were active supporters of the schools, and PADC.  Vanna Nicks, in a interview with me afterwards, found that she was there “to actually practice  [engaging in the uncomfortable]” and “explore many points of views, rather than just [learning how to] convince other people to adopt one way.”  Others, largely the teen contingent, were there to give a student insight into the actions of the high school.  All attendees, however, were there to support and shape a Piedmont that is tolerant and comfortable for all.

Many adults at the meeting voiced hopes for more intersectional contact for kids of Piedmont at a younger age.  After learning about the need for young children to develop the anti-bias domains of identity, diversity, justice, and action, many adults, including Nicks, concluded that a diverse Rec Department for elementary school kids — with different play styles and different kids — could help lay the foundation for trust and empathy early on.  Nicks also proposed that a “big brother-big sister” buddy program could help inspire younger students; high schoolers could play and talk with younger students about how to communicate, be brave, and take action.  Nicks views the learning she encountered at the meeting — from a newfound understanding of the word “cisgender” to learning frameworks for how to communicate with people and recognize when they are feeling pain or anger or suffering in a conversation — as being highly applicable to kids in the schools, especially if initiated in bite-sized, natural chunks.  Another adult, who had long taken part in a Mormon book group when she was not Mormon, also advocated for more exposure — at any point in life — to different groups of people.  Taking the time to be vulnerable and step out of one’s comfort zone was the resounding theme of all responses to the discussions.

Community member Vanna Nicks affirmed her hope for a tolerant populous in the United States as well as in Piedmont: “speaking as a person who stutters, I [sometimes] assume that people will want to end the conversation [with me] because I can’t control my blocks.  [Yet] living in the closet because of fear,” Nicks found, has limited her in the past.  Describing her pleasant surprise when, in fact, peoples’ attentiveness to her words grow due to her stutter, she feels ready to ask the question of “what can happen when we show our true selves.”   While she knows that the fear of lack of acceptance does indeed “come from somewhere,” she also knows that “we have a role” in our interactions and our lives.  Fear does not “just happen to us.” We always have the choice to respond to it with brave, kind action.

by Genevieve Raushenbush, Piedmont High School Senior 

Editors Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author.

One Response to “OPINION: We Are the Culture We Choose to Cultivate”

  1. Again Piedmont youth affirmed for me that they are the generation that will lead us to creating a more caring, empathetic and welcoming community for everyone. Teens made up about a quarter of the workshop participants in this series. Their engagement and insight added a welcome voice and a valuable perspective. Thank you, Genevieve, for your participation in Let’s Talk! and for sharing your thoughts on its impact and potential for our community.

Leave a Comment