Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Campus-Community Involvement
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 9,
Number 2

Download our print issue (PDF)
Campus-Community Connections
Intercultural Learning for Inclusive Excellence
Why Allen and Joan Bildner and the Bildner Family Foundation Funded a Statewide Diversity Initiative
Learning to Listen as We Lead
Institutional Models That Cultivate Comprehensive Change
Curricular Transformation
Where Worlds Converge
Curricular Transformation through Collaborative Teaching
Intercultural Learning in First-Year Seminars
Designing Intercultural and Cross-cultural Spaces
Enhancing Collaborative Leadership of Faculty and Staff
Faculty-Driven Curricular Change
Diversity as Shared Practice
Dialogue Groups at Princeton University Library
Faculty Involvement
Epistles, Posters, and Pizza
Forging Campus-Community Connections
"Beyond Food"
Cross-cultural by Design
Student Experience
Something to Declare
Putting Student Voices in Public Spaces
Café Bergen
Institutional Leadership and Committment
Assessing Diversity Attitudes in First-Year Students
Infusing Cultural Competency into Health Professions Education

“Beyond Food”: Creating Opportunities for Intercultural Communication with Students and Local Residents

By Peter Dlugos, professor of philosophy and former director of the Center for the Study of Intercultural Understanding, Bergen Community College

Bergen Community College

Bergen Community College

Civic organizations wishing to create greater harmony in their communities are often unable or reluctant to venture beyond sponsoring an international food festival. But experience teaches us that increasing familiarity with another culture’s food is only one of many important steps that can be taken to increase intercultural understanding.

Two years ago, “beyond food!” became the mantra of the Community Engagement Committee of the Center for the Study of Intercultural Understanding (CSIU) at Bergen Community College (BCC). CSIU’s mission is “to foster greater understanding and appreciation of the diverse cultures in our society, and to improve the communication and critical thinking skills necessary to facilitate intercultural dialogue.” The committee, comprised of both faculty and community members, discovered that a number of local civic and religious groups working on diversity initiatives were looking to the college to enhance their work by serving as a conduit for the theoretical and practical approaches to diversity current in higher education.

The committee’s initial venture was to collaborate with the Bergen County Human Relations Commission on their annual “Day of Harmony” by facilitating a dialogue we called “An Exploration in Intercultural Communication.” Police officers, teachers, mayors, social workers, religious leaders, and members of the business community joined students, faculty, and staff to explore our identities and build bridges across our diverse social worlds. Participants began by reflecting on how their identities involve participation in a social world, and were then asked to think about, and tell stories about, what counts as good communication within their social worlds. With those criteria in hand, attention was turned to the attributes and skills of a successful intercultural communicator. Good intercultural communicators understand that standards of communication are cultural, and they maintain forms of communication important to them while simultaneously being open to forms of communication important to others—no easy task. The session closed with small groups thinking and talking about how these skills can be applied in order to bridge social worlds. Participants again shared personal stories about how new intercultural communication systems or “third cultures” get created.

Afterward, participants reported that the experience of collectively reflecting on self-identity and group membership, and on how communication styles are directly connected to those groups, was a profound one. For many people, particularly those in the majority, social identities are more or less invisible. These people may not understand that their customary mode of communication is just one approach among many—a fact that can create problems when they try to interact with others who communicate differently. In a county as diverse as Bergen, the need to understand the cultural dimensions of communication, and the need to collaboratively create “third cultures” that bridge disparate forms of communication, is critical. Ninety-two percent of the participants reported that the workshop helped them better recognize themselves as cultural beings, and 94 percent reported that the workshop enriched their understanding of how to create new forms of communication that can bridge social worlds.

A second opportunity arose when we began discussions with members of the local YWCA Racial Justice Committee (RJC). The RJC had tried for several years to coordinate a community study circle program. Because it was difficult to maintain attendance over a four-week program, they had developed a condensed one-day version and were looking for a partner to help boost attendance, assist with facilitation, and provide a venue for the dialogue. We stepped in to help with facilitation and to host the dialogue on the BCC campus. Among the workshop’s explicit objectives was to heighten awareness about racism and discrimination by listening to one another’s experiences.

By the end of the day, there didn’t appear to be anyone there who had not been profoundly affected by the stories of their fellow participants, from the experiences of an African American man who had been born into a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi to the experiences of a Korean American woman who had tried for two decades to gain acceptance for herself and her sons in her predominantly white community. Eight months later, Jill Ross, a BCC student who participated in the dialogue, commented, “I learned so much, and experienced a deeper understanding of others’ struggles and pain. It really increased my compassion. I know I will never forget that day as I have already reflected back on it time and time again.”

The BCC vision is one of a “learning community,” a “service community,” a “diverse community,” and a “partnership community.” In particular, the college strives for an atmosphere where learning is central and collaborative, where civility and trust characterize all aspects of campus life, where inclusiveness is the norm and diversity is an asset, and where collaboration with community organizations is a basic part of college life. Through its recent work on intercultural communication, BCC has learned a valuable lesson about campus diversity initiatives: ask not only what you, as a college, can do for your community, but what the community can do for you and your students.

For more information about the Center for the Study of Intercultural Understanding, visit www.bergen.edu/csiu.


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