The greatest motivation in my decision to attend the National Multicultural Institute's (NMCI) 19th Annual
Spring Conference was clear: I needed warm weather. In Massachusetts, we were experiencing the rainiest spring in history and the soggy existence was becoming too much to bear. The NMCI conference was being held in Bethesda, Maryland, at the end of April when cherry blossoms and flowers would sure to be in bloom and the sun would be shining. The location would be postcard perfect. Sure, I knew I would have to attend morning and afternoon workshops that would keep me occupied for most of the day, but with daylight savings on my side, I would still be able to catch much needed rays. Besides, how much attention would I really need to give to workshops that dealt with racism and diversity? I am a minority, I was bussed from the city to the suburbs for my public school education; I live in a neighborhood with a variety of other ethnic groups, and I worked for a non-profit organization that focuses on diversity awareness. What could this conference throw at me that I had not already experienced? As it turned out, a lot.
The first day started in typical conference fashion: danish, coffee, and keynote speakers. Half-listening to the speakers share their individual stories of working in different countries and experiencing diversity on many levels, I glanced around the conference room sizing up the other attendees. Many participants sat in their seats hanging on to every utterance from the keynote speaker and panel, while others glanced around the room very likely asking the same questions I was asking myself:
What could I learn from the person sitting in the row in front of me? Will the man two rows back have insight on a similar type of experience I've had? When I caught the eye of a fellow attendee, we both smiled guiltily and faced forward. When the conference broke for lunch, I was still doubtful.
After my meal and a few glorious moments in the sun, it was time to attend the first workshop. The workshop concentrated on using storytelling as a tool to open the doors for honest discussions about issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. While I was not sure how much of my own experiences I was willing to share with a roomful of strangers, I was intrigued by the writing aspect of the workshop and curious to hear the stories of the other participants.
The storytelling group sat in an anxious circle as our facilitator, Yvette Hayter-Adams, distributed When I Was Growing Up, a poem by Nellie Wong. The poem focused on how the author felt about her inability to blend into the society around her and how, because of her immigrant background, others negatively perceived her. Each participant in the group took turns reading a line or two from the poem. Many in the group reacted strongly to the reading either because they could not understand the author's negative emotions toward herself or because they understood too well.
When it was time for the group to write and share their own stories Yvette explained the storytelling ground rules and the appropriate way to respond to each other's writing. One of the most important rules was to assume that all the writing we would share would be considered fictional unless the author stated differently. This rule gave everyone a chance to comment on the story, instead of commenting on the person who did the writing. Once the group agreed to respect the rules of the workshop and the tales told by fellow writers, we were given 15 minutes to put our stories to paper. The prompt was to write about a time when each of us were faced with unpacking our own privilege or oppression based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, or spiritual practice. I was surprised at the memory, described below, that came to me about how a discussion about mailboxes gave me the chance to broaden awareness and the responsibility that awareness carried.
A few years after I graduated from high school I volunteered to run a startup tutorial program at a local community center. While helping with homework one afternoon I got involved in a conversation about mailboxes. One of my students pointed to a picture on her worksheet and asked, "What's that?" I glanced over at the picture on the mimeograph and understood the confusion. It was a drawing of a mailbox, one that you would see in the suburbs, with a red metal flag attached to the side to alert the homeowner of mail. This was not a mailbox that was common to where my students or I lived. This was a TV show mailbox.
Anyone who had spent his or her whole life in an apartment knows that mailboxes are metal, lined up four across, and located inside apartment building hallways embedded into the wall with your last name taped to your individual box. The mailbox on the worksheet was a suburban mailbox, and to my students "suburban" meant "white." I spent my school years in the suburbs, so to my students, I also meant "white." They knew that I carried the secret to this other world where mailboxes with flags on the side existed and people lived in houses with two levels and a backyard. Because I could share my knowledge on this unfamiliar view of life, I knew I had the responsibility to reinforce the belief that suburbia was not just a privilege for a white society. I wanted these students to know that by
believing in their goals and putting forth the effort, any of them could live in a house with a red-flagged mailbox on their front lawn.
After I read my piece to the class, I panned the room as I had during the keynote speeches that morning. There were no shy glances this time around; instead all the participants were wearing their emotions unapologetically. There was evidence of emotional scabs that had grown over hurtful situations but had never completely healed. Many faces were a window to the anger that bubbled almost to the surface and then subsided back behind emotional walls.
There were many stories that were shared in the short period of time; all seemed to bring the group closer together and opened our minds a little more. By the end of the workshop our circle had become tighter as we sat shoulders touching, leaning forward to offer undivided attention to the experience being shared. It was apparent that participants may have attended the workshop carrying the baggage of our own experiences, but once we had the opportunity to share our burdens, we were able to open up a little more and leave the workshop lighter.
By the evening of the first series of workshops, I realized I had brought on my trip to Bethesda the very things I frown upon in others: preconceived notions and a closed mind. I discovered my knowledge and understanding about discrimination and diversity was miniscule. Once I let go of what I thought I knew I could make room for what I did not know and accept lessons learned from experiences shared. The NMIC turned out to be more than an excuse to enjoy a few warm spring days. The conference was the key to opening the door to healing and a spotlight on the responsibility we all have to educate each other by being willing to openly share and genuinely listen.
Lanell Beckers is a staff associate for the New England Literacy Resource Center. She can be reached at: