Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010

How Closed are “Closed Minds”?

by Sharon Welch

When I moved to the University of Missouri after having worked in Boston, I found that approaches to racial and gender equality that worked in New England were counterproductive in our work with my white, conservative students in the lower Midwest. Many of my students in Missouri were first-generation college students, working class to middle class, and mostly from racially homogenous rural and suburban communities. In a study of these students' resistance to multicultural education, doctoral student Jetay Arafakaro found that they did not see the necessity of learning about diverse populations, they denied the reality of oppression in the United States, and they thought that the professors who taught multicultural education neither respected them nor understood their world.

In one respect, they were right: Arafakaro also found that most progressive professors thought these students were prejudiced, closed-minded, and uninterested in learning. I worked with a team of educators that found ways to establish respect, to counter resistance. We built on the work of William Jones, a former professor of Black Studies at Florida State University. Rather than telling students that the views they had of their America were wrong, together we developed exercises that helped us see our America differently.

We began simply, asking students to share what they valued in their culture, what nurtured and sustained them. We then explored who had power in their communities, asking students to identify first the most powerful institutions -- banks, churches, school boards, large businesses, media, government agencies. Then we asked students, now, pick an institution that you know (it's one you have to know personally) and identify who has the most power in that institution, which individuals or group of individuals. And finally, report to the group as a whole. Identify those powerful individuals by race, class, gender, and presumed sexual orientation. Now the answers, obvious to us, were surprising to most of the students. But with this recognition from their experience of the truth of power in their own communities, we could begin. What were the effects of these disparities? How did they arise? Where were they changing, and what strategies led to more equitable distribution of power? What were the typical forms of backlash and resistance that occurred as formerly excluded groups of people moved into positions of institutional power?

We experienced the joy of expanding circles of deliberation and engagement with those we had formerly seen as prejudiced, closed-minded, and uninterested in learning. We took up the work of deliberative dialogue as developed by David Mathews and Noelle McAfee, and began to learn together. We found that it was possible to move from divisive debate to transformative interaction through first hearing what was at stake in policy issues for those with different views.

We listened to personal stories. We were then able to move into a process of searching for the strength and insights in the positions of others. We opened our own fundamental assumptions for public scrutiny and evaluation. We explored honestly the positive and negative impacts of all solutions, and we submitted our best thinking to enhance the creativity of all.

I invite us in the next few days, and the next few months, and the next few years, to apply these lessons to our collaboration with the Obama administration and the collective work of fundamental social change. Our role is not only to provide advocacy for the policies that we so rightly value, but also to find ways to bring along our conservative colleagues, neighbors, and family members -- to seek the best that is possible now, for us as citizens of a radically diverse place.

In our work as leaders, as citizens, stumble we will. Yet create, we may. Evoking the beauty and justice to be found in this group, in this nation, in this moment in time -- this is our great challenge, our rich legacy, and our sustaining and empowering hope.

Dr. Sharon D. Welch is provost of Meadville Lombard Theological School (Unitarian Universalist). Her books include After Empire, The Art and Ethos of Enduring Peace, and Real Peace, Real Security: The Challenges of Global Citizenship.

Source Citation: Welch, Sharon. 2010. How Closed are “Closed Minds”? Tikkun 25(5): 71

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