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Diversity Workshop: Possibilities and Paradoxes

Carlos E. Cortés, Professor Emeritus of History, University of California–Riverside, and Member, American Commitments Initiative National Panel

So your campus is thinking about holding diversity workshops? Great. But, what do you really want...or not want? And why? And for whom? And for what purpose? As one who has been conducting diversity workshops and making diversity-related presentations for nearly three decades, I find that too many campuses encounter frustration or even go awry because they fail to address these critical questions.

Take, for example, a common complaint--that faculty members (or administrators or your favorite "they") don't show up. Well, why don't they? Maybe because they don't see a compelling reason. Sure, some may be opposed to or afraid of or simply lack interest in the topic of diversity. But others, deeply committed to diversity, may have already been to numerous diversity workshops or lectures and fear that they'll merely hear the "same-old-same-old." (I don't show up either if I sense that a particular presenter won't be providing challenging new ideas.)

To attract more campus folks to diversity-related workshops or presentations and to make their attendance worthwhile, you need to offer the hope and deliver on the promise that, indeed, they will come away with new ideas. That means workshops that provide insights into the nuances and complexities of diversity and that are tailored to the special institutional needs of different campus constituencies and different target audiences.

Administrators and Faculty Members

Diversity workshops for upper echelon administrators, for instance, should focus on topics like future-envisioning, policy-making, crisis management, or media relations. Deans and department chairs may be interested in more practical workshops on creating and improving diversity-related initiatives or on increasing faculty, staff, and student diversity. Workshops for administrators might also address ways to link community, academic, and student affairs approaches to diversity. Workshops for faculty members, on the other hand, may need to address the whys and hows of diversity programs and courses. These could include a variety of options and models, benefits and complications of diversity-related restructuring of degree programs and required general education courses. Many faculty members would benefit from workshops on ways to help students pursue more effective careers and become more constructive parts of an increasingly multicultural society and shrinking globe. Some faculty members may want workshops that provide them with practical advice on and examples of effective pedagogical techniques for diverse classrooms. Others, reluctant to teach about diversity because of a not-unwarranted fear of potential conflict in the classroom, might desire workshops on conducting diversity-related classroom dialogue about sensitive topics.

Diversity workshops can also play a vital role in facilitating constructive intergroup conversations and fostering intercultural understanding.

Student Affairs and Administrative Staff

Student affairs professionals logically are concerned with ways to address the special concerns of a campus's various student communities. They may want practical advice or strategies for building bridges among students of different backgrounds. Residence hall personnel might benefit from workshops on cross-cultural perceptions and intergroup relations so that they can better deal with such diversity-related issues as unhappy roommates whose cultural differences grate on each other or expressions of hate speech on doors and bulletin boards.

Staff members in a variety of campus locations could benefit from insights into improving intercultural communication and building on the strengths of individual diversity in the multicultural workplace, including drawing upon bilingual abilities. They might also find value in workshops that simply introduce them to the variety of cultural backgrounds and traditions that students bring onto campus and that influence their behavior.

Workshops for Students

Students, of course, are central participants in campus multiculturalism (even when this takes the form of avoiding contact with those who are "different"). As future teachers and physicians, businesspeople and public servants, they are the potential contributors--or obstacles--to a better, more just society of unity and diversity. Certainly courses may address multicultural dimensions of that future preparation. But diversity workshops can also play a vital role in facilitating constructive intergroup conversations and fostering intercultural understanding.

Know Your Own Community

In short, diversity workshops need to respond to a range of needs and desires, hopes and fears, wishes and angsts. No one model workshop fits all. It is important to analyze the needs and desires of one's own community--and communities--when bringing in outside experts.

Diversity opportunities, challenges, and dilemmas may vary greatly among large public universities in different parts of the country, nonsectarian private colleges, and religiously affiliated institutions. Therefore, presenters should be asked to shape their workshops to meet special institutional concerns, questions, and contexts, as well as dealing with more general issues of diversity in higher education.

Fostering Campuswide Dialogue

But is that all there is? Just different strokes for different folks? Isn't there some common dimension that links effective diversity workshops, regardless of institution or campus sector--some essential thrust for workshops intended to foster stronger campus community amidst diverse campus communities?

Yes. There seems to me to be one underlying dimension that is critical to all constructive diversity workshops. They should provide the opportunity to carry on truly honest dialogues about diversity, to honestly engage its opportunities and challenges, and to honestly explore its complexities and paradoxes.

I say honest dialogues--not gatherings in which participants show up mainly to posture, spout platitudes, lay on guilt trips, play victimization one-upmanship, or rationalize their own beliefs and actions. No, I mean honest dialogues in which every participant comes with the desire and obligation to listen, not just speak, to learn, not just teach. Dialogues in which all participants can speak from the heart without fear of knee-jerk moral muggings from the self-anointed self-righteous.

One of the major insights that emerged from the work of the American Commitments initiative is this crucial need for broad-based and frank dialogues. The panel stressed in many of its publications the need for all members of a campus community to increase their personal capacity to live, work, and share space with others whose beliefs and values may vary greatly from their own--whether those ideas arise from culture, gender, ethnic tradition, religious belief, racial experience, sexual orientation, personal idiosyncrasy, or the unequal access to power and influence that many campus community members routinely experience. Diversity programming needs to foster the search for common ground--for a sense of community that builds on but reaches beyond communities.

The more I conduct diversity workshops--on college campuses and at professional conferences, at K–12 institutions and private businesses, for public gatherings and media professionals--I am increasingly struck by the growing desire--mixed with valid trepidation--to engage in such honest, constructive, future-oriented dialogues.

Diversity dialogues are inherently difficult. Why not? After all, living and working amidst diversity creates inevitable challenges as well as opportunities. Diversity workshops provide no "magic bullets" for eliminating bigotry, ordaining understanding, or manufacturing equality. Yet well-conceived, thoughtfully conducted diversity workshops can play a vital role by helping participants voice, explore, and grapple with institutional difficulties and personal dilemmas, learn to become more adept in the diversity- related dimensions of their own work, and become better contributors to a more just and equitable society of unity and diversity.

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