Intersections: Acknowledging Difference

January 05, 2017 by Bill Ivey
"Inquiry is always a form of intervention." - Dr. Derrick Gay

The thing about group learning is, what each individual person in the group learns is somehow - perhaps subtly, perhaps in a major way - different from what every other individual person in the group learns. That’s a function in part of everyone having an absolutely unique set of life experiences out of which we are making meaning in the world. And that’s perhaps especially true with diversity work, which makes managing an in-service day for an entire faculty (already a daunting task) especially tricky. Yet, I went into Tuesday’s session with high hopes; Dr. Derrick Gay had given the faculty and staff a survey the results of which he planned to use to organize and frame the day, and I knew enough of his work (I follow him on Twitter) to be confident the day would be productive. And it was.

The day was a skillful blend of formal presentations, large- and small-group activities and discussions (with different configurations of small groups), debriefings, and individual reflection. It ended with several writing prompts to which we were to respond in approximately 120 characters or less and which were anonymously aggregated, which would help give both Dr. Gay and ourselves feedback on how the day went and also give us useful ideas to help take the necessary steps of following up and moving forward.

Dr. Gay had asked us to watch his TEDx talk “The Double Edged Sword” (which I recommend to anyone unfamiliar with it) prior to our in-service day. One of the core questions was, “Why is it that we’re so uncomfortable with acknowledging difference?” The word “diversity” itself, he notes, can be an affirmation and can galvanize people to action, and yet can also cause other people to have a feeling of divisiveness or anger. This distinction, where it exists, often relates to a misunderstanding of diversity as an identity we either do or do not have. Yet, when we think of diversity as “difference,” suddenly no specific identity is centered or marginalized; we all co-exist together. “Diversity” can then become a way to seek equity, benefitting everyone. (Gay, paraphrased) It also follows that identity work becomes inextricably tied to diversity work.

One thing Dr. Gay asked us to do was explore and then share our own identities through writing prompts for an “I am from... “ poem (see “Cherished Imperfections” for a superb student example of this genre). Though I was born in Pennsylvania, we moved away when I was three and I have no real conscious memory of place other than one moment from my third birthday. I despaired of being able to think of a concrete object that meant “home” to me - until I suddenly remembered, as my eyes lightly misted, the Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign, a form of folk art dating back to the mid 19th century. Even after moving, we had stickers on our porch doors in first Colorado and then Massachusetts, and I had a brightly coloured wooden one just like this that I kept in my room all through my childhood. We shared our poems in small groups, learning new things about each other in the process, laughing in particular over various nicknames we had received, endured, and/or in one person’s case, inadvertently bestowed on ourselves. This identity work, besides helping us each think about ourselves, helped us see areas of commonality, difference, and different associations with similar experiences. It thus laid the groundwork for further activities to explore these themes, as well as the role of language, more deeply, including specifically through the lens of race.

As I write this, we haven’t had a chance yet to see our cumulative reflections, reactions, and ideas for how best to keep moving forward. But in the meantime, several of us have already agreed to meet at lunch next week to talk about how best to continue supporting “equity, justice, and compassion” (in the words of one of my colleagues) at our school. I look forward to the conversation, and many more.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: anti-racism, diversity, Intersections, inclusion, identity