“What can we as interculturalists do to help heal ever more extreme divides in US culture?" https://www.sietarusa.org/blog/9430039
Response by Chris Cartwright and interviewees: Taj Suleman, MA, Dr. Cheryl Forster, Sofia Santiago, MBA, MAIR, PMP, Teni-Ola Ogunjobi, MAIR, Kevin R. Martin, MA
SIETAR-USA colleague Marcella Peralta Simon posed the question above in a letter to the Editor back in the Fall. It’s intriguing, Yes? SIETAR-USA Newsletter Editors Sandy Fowler & Emily Kawasaki asked if I would reply to it and I said ‘yes’. I interviewed Marcella to get more context, (seriously, what interculturalist doesn’t want more context?) and then pondered how I could proceed. I chose to interview 5 interculturalists to get their perspective. I hope you appreciate what they have to offer.
Taj Suleyman, MAIR, is the new Director of Equity and Inclusion for the Iowa Community School District. Taj related Marcella’s Letter to his experience in Dubuque, Iowa (where he lived until very recently) when interacting with MAGA hat wearing Trump supporters. He has found that if we, as interculturalists, are willing to take to time to deeply hear them and hear to learn, that people will open up to him. People have shared with him that the in their view, the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6 are heroes. They don’t see these actions as evil or even selfish, and do not appreciate it if we judge them in that way. If we look at the foundation of intercultural relations, we see the value of ‘belonging’ and for this population they feel a sense of belonging with the MAGA movement. When he shares with them that he, as a Somali/Lebanese immigrant is in the process of bringing his wife and daughter over from Lebanon, that they respond that they will pray for his family’s safe journey. They may prefer to operate very individualistically, but they pray for a collective wellbeing.
Taj feels it is the responsibility of interculturalists to find empathy for our community members. He jokes that the ‘Midwest Nice’ that he’s learned in Iowa is drastically different for the Portland ‘nice’ that he experienced while living and working the Pacific Northwest. But he has learned of the context of the people in Iowa and people there feel greatly excluded from the politics and economic policies of the Democratic party and the peoples on either coast. Their industries and farms have suffered, and they found that Trump spoke to them and to a degree delivered some of his promises to them. He found that the socio-economic divide that people in Iowa are feeling is deep and has built a distrust liberal policies and globalization. If we are serious about an inclusionary agenda, we need to address people’s feelings of exclusion first. Empathy is very important in this work and interculturalists are trained in this essential skill.
Cheryl Forester, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist who works full time at the counseling clinic of Portland State University and in addition is the sole proprietor of an intercultural training firm that specializes in supporting counselors to link and leverage intercultural sensitivity to improving psychological outcomes. In her own words “My work focuses on integrating intercultural and social justice approaches to diversity, along with Polyvagal informed skills (my recent SIETAR presentation); so my goal is to try to hold the complexity of all three perspectives simultaneously, as I bumble my own way through these challenging times.”
She chose to compose her reply and forward it to me, as she holds a high level of value in carefully constructed answers to complex issues.
As a woman of color (WOC), I often ask myself, who is being centered in these conversations and who is being harmed or burdened? Culture is not always neutral, and both sides of an argument are not always equally valid, especially if one is built on lies and bigotry. … As an intercultural educator and psychologist, I am never going to stop trying to connect, listen, believing people can change, communicate, and connect across differences, and be compassionate, while hopefully always learning and growing myself. At the same time, I always want to make sure I am attending to power dynamics, because we cannot be neutral in the face of oppression. A collective healing has to be built on trauma-informed principles, connection, justice, equity, and truth.
Sofia Santiago, MBA, MAIR, PMP (formerly known as Becky Russell, MBA) is an international speaker, trainer, and coach. Sofia chose to treat Marcella’s Letter as if Marcella and her retirement community might be a potential client. Ever the professional she composed a 10-point intervention plan that reads like a master class in Intercultural consulting. She starts with focusing on the client, their context, what the genuine need it and how to chunk down the learning into digestible pieces. She then walks us through the process of change and considering grief. Her multistep process of self-analysis of what the teacher/coach is bringing to the engagement is razor-sharp; she offers that this process is essential in order to move discussions from superficial to deep levels of empathy. She then moves to find a way to communicate commonalities, and the value of appealing to emotions in supporting change. In our interview it was clear that the type of exchange that Marcella experienced was not uncommon, but imminently changeable with the adequate preparation and facilitative grace. I’m sure Sofia would be fine with me sharing her 10-point action plan if you would like to see it in full.
Teni-Ola Ogunjobi, MAIR and PhD student is a Nonprofit Director, Refugee and Immigrant Advocate, Interculturalist and Writer in the Atlanta. She chose to read and respond to my interview extemporaneously, and with a freshness of candor that can be both disarming and shocking. She started and closed the interview by stating and then restating that as an Interculturalist, a Black Interculturalist, she has no time for ‘awareness building’ … “maybe you need to bring in someone else to set the foundation and get people on the same page BEFORE I come in – But my work is about getting to action, working on the steps you need to make the changes necessary to make this right and holding people accountable for their actions.” She stated that after last Summer, with George Floyd and the BLM marches, seeing Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color marching in a Pandemic, that people had no excuse for not being aware that there is injustice in this country. As for Marcella, and other of us who represent the dominant culture, she encouraged us to hold these difficult conversations with our Fox News watching neighbors. That such discussion would come better from us as we in the ‘In Group’, or as Teni-Ola would say we are their ‘skin folk’; so they will trust hearing this work better from us than from a POC like herself.
Kevin Martin, MAIR, is the Community Development Specialist at Community Works West, an agency devoted to bringing healing to the criminal justice system. He also moonlights as a Dharma teacher for his sangha and has recently started an ordination process within his lineage. Kevin started by attending to judgement, articulating that in being an interculturalist he has to first understand that not everyone thinks like him. He does not know why women and people of color (POC) would vote against their best interests. Before this process, we have to offer the humanity, humility, and dignity to respect that they had agency. Remembering that cultures and genders are not monoliths, so we can’t know why these choices were or are made.
Kevin noted that Interculturalists have tools to be able to see deep, but also to see from a broader perspective. If we can step back and take a more global perspective, we see that similar questions are being asked about the US. ‘Why does America take up so much space? Why does it support such atrocious leadership that harms the peoples and environment of the word?’ His Dharma students wrestle with embracing people with kindness and understanding who they see as doing things that are hurtful or atrocious; they offer the analogy of a car and ask if the carburetor can be replaced. Kevin replies that viewing the US as a human body is more appropriate. The US needs the South and the Midwest to function, we cannot remove parts and make it better. Kevin closes by reminding us that we as interculturalists are curious and so can move to close proximity to difference and seek to find commonalities. We may not agree with a person’s ideas, but we can learn to acknowledge that we can see where they are coming from. That this seeing and valuing the overlaps opens up a spaciousness to empathy. In our interactions we, as interculturalists, can be unafraid to point-out edges, without judgement and encourage other to see and explore these edges together.
The responses to my query to respond to Marcella’s Letter were as diverse as the people I had chosen to interview. I am privileged to have taught each of them once in our lives and humbled to be able to call them colleagues. I hope you appreciate the authenticity with which they responded to this Letter to the editor. Listed below are my co-authors on this response.
Taj Suleman, MA
Dr. Cheryl Forster
Sofia Santiago, MBA, MAIR, PMP
Teni-Ola Ogunjobi, MAIR
Kevin R. Martin, MA