Lessons From Nature

For the past month or so, I have been actively seeking out and enjoying the stunning wildflowers that are in bloom throughout Southwestern Ohio. I have always enjoyed hiking and nature, but this year, I have made it a point to learn more about native wildflowers.

This Spring, I have spent hours walking along trails and creeks, throughout six different counties, learning about each wildflower that I happen to encounter. I have taken hundreds of photos and am slowly gaining more knowledge about these beautiful miracles that grow along the highway, in pastures and meadows, as well as in deep, cool woodlands.

Overall, I have to say that the whole experience encourages me to reflect on diversity in general. There are so many different wildflowers just in my little corner of the world. The diversity I have been experiencing with wildflowers doesn’t even take into account the wide variety of trees, butterflies, insects, fish, birds, and mammals that are occupying the same land. It is truly awe-inspiring to take time and reflect on the incredibly diverse nature world that surrounds us.

While I take in the rich diversity of the wildflowers I have encountered, I struggle to understand how anyone can believe that there is just one way to do anything. So much bigotry, prejudice, and hate are based on the idea that there is one, absolute, and right way to exist in the world. Only one way to look. Only one way to love. Only one way to worship. Only one way to believe. Only one way to live.

If you will humor me, I would like to share what I have learned from the official wildflower of Ohio, called the trillium. I have always known how to identify trillium because they are a unique, three-leaved plant with a single white flower found in the woods where I grew up. At least, that is what I have always thought. What I have learned recently, is that there are eight different types of trillium, just in Ohio. While some have white flowers, other have red flowers. Some are tall and some are short. Some have flowers that are upright, some are drooping. Some have solid leaves and some have speckles. Yet despite their differences, they are all trillium. (Click here to read more and see pictures of each kind).

The Brazilian author Paulo Coelho said, “In a forest of a hundred thousand trees, no two leaves are alike. And no two journeys along the same path are alike.” This sums up the belief I have, to the very core of my being, that diversity enriches our world and our lives. I believe that the same diversity that is reflected all around us in the natural world is a model or road map for what the human world should look like, as well. Despite our differences, we are all human.


P.S. Hate and violence have been in the national and international headlines, seemingly on a daily basis. I encourage you to read some blogs from our archives, such as After Darkness, There Will Be Light and Look For The Helpers.

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The Second Ripple

After my freshman year at Gettysburg College, I transferred to Cornell University. On the first day of classes at Cornell, I experienced my second ripple of change. I walked into a small classroom and saw “Does racism exist in America?” written in big letters on the chalk board. As we filed into the classroom, our professor, Don Barr, asked us to divide into small groups and discuss our responses to the question.

I didn’t take much time to think about my answer because I had an immediate response. Based on my personal experience, I planned to share my answer without any hesitation or thought. My answer was a simple “no”.

How could I answer “no” to this question? Well, it’s important to remember where I was coming from. I came from a community that had very little cultural diversity. In my personal experience, I did not see many people of color, let alone witness racism. Like many white people, I had been taught to think of racism on an individual level. Here is what I remember thinking:

  • Was I in the KKK?
  • Did I use racial epithets?
  • Was I disrespectful towards people of color?

Since I answered “no” to these questions, I figured I personally wasn’t racist. In fact, I was proud to admit that I would sometimes go out of my way to be extra nice to people of color, just to show I wasn’t racist. I would hold the door open maybe longer than usual or just be extra helpful, just to make sure I didn’t appear racist.

Like many white people, I also thought of racism as a historical issue. It was 1990. Were African-Americans drinking out of separate drinking fountains or sitting in the back of the bus? No. Did they have the right to vote? Yes. So, again, my simple conclusion was that racism was something that had been in the past and simply didn’t exist anymore.

As I gathered in a circle with my small group, what I vividly remember is that I was the only one who answered “no” to the question. Fortunately, no one laughed at me. Out of a class of 30 people, maybe 3 of us answered no. Although I don’t remember much about the class dialogue that day, what I remember is feeling a ripple. There was a sense that things were happening around me that I was totally unaware of. At the same time, I had a feeling that my world was about to change.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I lived in such a bubble. But I remind myself that people today still live in bubbles. Many communities are just as segregated today as they were in the early 1960s, if not more so. Being uninformed is easy if you are a member of the ingroup. Like me, you have the privilege of not needing to know about these things.

Imagine walking into a classroom and seeing this question: “Does racism exist in America?” How would you respond and why?

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In loving memory of Professor Donald Barr, 1935-2008. He was an inspiring teacher and a passionate social activist. Little did I know, that this first day of class with him was just the beginning of a long and influential relationship. Rest in peace.

Picture of Don Barr

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Are We There Yet?

If you have children or have been around children, you know that every road trip involves the dreaded question: “Are we there yet?” Adults often moan and may eventually shout a response to the question depending on how frequently it is asked and how much more time it will take to reach the final destination.

I think the journey to become more culturally competent is somewhat similar. You might wonder if you are there yet. You’ve read some blogs, you have read some children’s books, and you think it’s important to talk about differences. Are you done? Are you there yet?

The answer is no. I’ve been on my journey for over 25 years and while I feel comfortable with cultural differences and am knowledgeable about issues like bias, privilege, and most of the -isms, I still have room for improvement. We all have room for improvement.

I want to give you an example of a recent stumble I made. About a month ago, I observed two men working on the telephone pole in our yard. One was white and one was black. I had a quick question so I went outside and approached the men. Without thinking, I found myself asking the white man my question. As the conversation started, I quickly realized my bias in addressing the white man and assuming he was in charge. Despite my commitment to cultural awareness and equality, I found myself perpetuating a common and subtle form of racism.

After this experience, I reflected on what I had done. We have talked about the need to be self-aware. That means being aware of your own culture and the biases and the blind spots that come with it. It means reflecting on your actions and attitudes and taking responsibility when you mess up. And you will.  It’s important to own your mistakes, learn from them, and continue on.

So am I there yet? Nope. But I know what I need to do to keep moving forward on my journey. If you have the desire to become more aware of cultural diversity and to feel more comfortable around differences, the research suggests that there are three distinct actions that you need to take. To begin your journey, you must:

  1. Practice cultural self-awareness.
  2. Gain knowledge and information about other cultures.
  3. Learn skills that enable successful interaction and communication.

Over time, we will look at all three of these actions in great depth and detail. So far, we have done a bit of self-reflection, but there is much more to do. We have also discussed the importance of windows in gaining knowledge and information about other cultures.

The journey towards cultural competence is on-going and never-ending. There is no finish line. There is not a final destination. This is a trip that is best done in fellowship with others and even better when done as a family. Are you ready for the trip of a lifetime? Are you ready to see where the journey takes you?

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Finding Your Way

Writing about skin color reminded me of an experience I had many years ago. Not surprisingly, it involves making a mistake. As a result, I learned two great lessons. One, words can cause harm even without intending to do so. Two, it is important to have teachers and mentors on your personal journey. (Trigger warning: racial slur)

During my junior year at Cornell, I was walking back to my dorm with a group of friends. I was the only white person in the group and we were all leaving an African American history class. During the conversation, I used the word mulatto to describe a fellow classmate. It was a word I had heard to describe someone who was a mix of white and black skin colors. As soon as that word left my mouth, everyone stopped walking, all eyes were on me, and it got real quiet.

Someone finally said, “I can’t believe you used that word. Do you know what it means?” I shook my head no. “The word mulatto is based on the word mule. And you know what a mule is, right?” Again I was quiet. Another friend stated, “A mule is born when a horse and a donkey reproduce. But mules cannot reproduce. They are sterile. So calling someone mulatto is like calling them a mule. It’s really offensive and you should never use that word. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.”

I sincerely apologized and explained that I didn’t know the word was derogatory. It wasn’t a very good excuse but I was being honest. My friends knew me well enough to know I didn’t mean any harm and no one stayed angry, although I can imagine they were disappointed in me. We eventually resumed our walk and the incident was forgotten by everyone except me. I will never forget what I learned that day and I never again used that word.

When I look back, I am extremely grateful for moments like this, and especially grateful for all the people who have guided me on my journey. Sometimes it takes just one voice (The First Ripple) and sometimes it takes a group of voices. Over the years, I have learned from friends, strangers, teachers, and students. I never know when the next lesson will happen or who my teacher will be. But I always try to be a willing student.

To be clear, becoming culturally competent is your own responsibility. However, your chance of success will increase if you surround yourself with a nurturing support system. Luckily, there are amazing people out there willing to help if they know your heart is in the right place. I am certainly willing to help you, but that’s not enough. So now is a good time to think and reflect: Who has already helped you on your journey? Who else can guide you? Who can help you find your way, tell you when you are lost, and teach you when you make mistakes?

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The First Ripple

As I mentioned in my first post, I grew up in a homogeneous suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Most people looked like me, worshipped like me, and lived like me. I was surrounded by mirrors.

My slow journey towards cultural competence started when I was an undergraduate student. Although I am ashamed to share my experiences, I feel the need to put a stake in the ground so you can understand how far I have traveled. The event I want to share with you took place in 1989 at Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. I refer to this experience as “the first ripple.” I apologize in advance for being offensive and insensitive. (Trigger warning: homophobic slur)

Like all the freshman students, I was taking a mandatory writing seminar and we were reading books from different cultural perspectives. One of the books was On Being Gay: Thoughts on Family, Faith, and Love by Brian McNaught. The author was visiting campus and we were required to attend his presentation. I can vividly remember complaining and saying, “I can’t believe we have to go listen to this fag.” I said the f-word without any thought or embarrassment, although there was certainly malice. It was a word I knew not to use at home, but had heard a million times in high school and had said more times than I care to remember. It was a put down and unquestionably derogatory.

But something incredibly important happened. For the first time in my life, my good friend boldly responded, “I can’t believe you just said that. What is wrong with you?” I was shocked to say the least. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. She totally called me out for being homophobic and to this day I applaud her for doing the right thing. She courageously stood up to me and told me I was wrong.

I listened that evening and was captivated. Brian was a very interesting and engaging speaker. He shared that he had attempted suicide and been fired from a job because he was gay. I left thinking that he had been through a lot and had been treated unjustly. Somewhere deep inside, I felt like I was a better person just for listening to his story.

I wish I could tell you I became a straight ally overnight, but I didn’t. I still had a lot of work to do. But three important things happened that night. First, someone corrected my disrespectful language. Second, I learned about a person’s life experience that was different than my own (I peered through a window). Third, the f-word was no longer just a generic derogatory word. There was now a personal connection that hadn’t been there before.

Donna Brazile said, “It takes but one person, one moment, one conviction, to start a ripple of change.” This was my first ripple. Can you remember yours? Can you remember a moment in time when you realized you were wrong and that you needed to change?

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Additional Cultural Dimensions

As I mentioned in my last post, there is an endless list of things that help determine how we see the world around us. I have been fortunate enough to discuss this topic with a diverse group of people and with their help, I have added these additional dimensions of culture:

  • Geographic Region: If you were raised in the U.S., what part of the country do you call home?
  • Military Experience: Have you been actively involved in the military?
  • Time Orientation: Do you place more value on the past, present, or future?
  • Personality: Are you an introvert, extrovert, or a combination of both?
  • Community Type: Is home in a rural, suburban, or urban community?
  • Body Shape and Size: Does your body fall within the cultural “norms” of society or do you find yourself not fitting in?
  • Incarceration: Have you ever been incarcerated?
  • Tragedy: Have you ever experienced a personal tragedy, such as an accident, unexpected illness, or death?
  • Birth Order: Where do you fall in terms of birth order and how has that impacted you?
  • Food: What do you consider comfort food? What role does food play in your life?

I still don’t believe my list is all-inclusive. I’m waiting to hear from you. What do you want to add to the list? Remember, there are no wrong answers. We all experience life in a deeply personal and unique way. Yet, we are also greatly impacted by our families and the important people around us. Amazingly, these dimensions of culture don’t have to directly impact your life. Your culture can be impacted indirectly through relationships.

I want to share a personal story to help illustrate this point. I have never been incarcerated and have little knowledge of the criminal justice system. However, for the past 13 years, I have been a pen pal with someone who is incarcerated. He has taught me many things about life behind bars and all the challenges that come with it. I have learned what daily life is like, how parole works, and what kind of things you can and can’t send to someone who is incarcerated. Once, I sent him a care package that included gum. It turns out that gum can be used to ruin locks, so it is a big no-no in prison. I had no idea. Without stepping foot inside a prison, I have learned a lot about the prison system and its culture.

Another important and tricky aspect of culture is related to time. Culture can change! For example, I was raised Catholic. Many of my favorite childhood memories revolved around the religious rituals and traditions that I shared with my siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. However, as an adult, I drifted away from the church and no longer identify as Catholic. Did my culture change as a result? You bet.

Now it’s your turn. What dimensions of your cultural identity have changed over time and how has that impacted your worldview?

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Windows and Mirrors

In college, I read an important and life changing article titled Curriculum as Window and Mirror by Emily Style. She is an educator, writer, and co-founder of the National SEED (Seeking Educational Equality and Diversity) Project. In 1988, Emily wrote:

“[There is a] need for [education] to function both as window and as mirror, in order to reflect and reveal most accurately both a multicultural world and the student herself or himself…education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected.”

In other words, mirrors provide students with the opportunity to see themselves, their reality, and provide a sense of validation. Windows provide students the opportunity to see differences and learn about other people’s experiences. When balanced, windows and mirrors provide students with an understanding of a diverse world and their place in it.

I love this framework and it helps me make sense of my educational upbringing. Like I mentioned in my previous post, I grew up in a homogeneous suburb and left school knowing very little about diversity. Why? I spent 12 years being surrounded by mirrors! My skin color (white), my religion (Christianity), my family type (2-parent), my class (upper-middle), and my sexual orientation (straight) were always reflected back at me. This left me with an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a worldview that ignored differences.

Fortunately for me, my college experience gave me the opportunity to gaze out many, many windows. For the first time, there were fewer mirrors. I learned so much about the world around me and my place in the world. Without a doubt, looking out windows and learning about diversity was the most meaningful aspect of my college experience.

Though my worldview changed, most schools have not. Just like I had been, my kids are surrounded by mirrors and there are very few windows. I’m sad for them and the lost opportunity to learn about differences. I’m also sad for their friends who are Jewish, Latino, adopted, gay, or have a disability. Those kids look out a lot of windows and don’t see many mirrors. Not surprisingly, it’s typical for kids who only see windows to feel as if they do not belong.

Since it’s not happening at school, I believe that parents need to jump in and take an active role at home. While it’s perfectly normal for your home to have more mirrors than windows, it’s still important for you to provide windows. Windows give children a chance to learn about differences, let them know that you value diversity, and that it’s okay to talk about it. In the future, I will give you suggestions for how to do this. For now, I want to ask a question. Do you think it is important for children to have an equal balance of windows and mirrors in their lives?

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A New Beginning

Although I have written in the past and have been a frequent public speaker, I am nervous to start this blogging adventure. Putting my thoughts and ideas out in the public domain is a bit intimidating. Before we go any farther, know that I do not like to think of myself as an expert. I am not perfect. I have flaws and limitations like everyone else. I have more to learn. However, I believe I have a meaningful story to share.

I grew up in a very homogeneous suburban community near Cincinnati, Ohio. Like most Midwesterners, I was raised to be nice and I was really nice to everyone. But it wasn’t until my college years that I realized being nice didn’t cut it. It wasn’t until I left my hometown that I slowly and methodically discovered that there was a whole world that I had been taught not to see – a world full of beautiful differences. I also realized that these newly discovered cultural differences required more knowledge and skills to navigate than just me being nice.

This dawning awareness about culture and diversity eventually became the focal point of my undergraduate work. I spent a lot of time studying psychology, family dynamics, American history, white privilege, sexuality, racism, homophobia, civil rights, and other topics related to diversity. Outside the classroom, I formed life-long friendships that crossed color, ethnicity, class, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, and geography.

I continued to learn as much as I could about differences, specifically the intersection of cultural awareness and family life. I reflected on my own upbringing and kept asking the question, “How can families raise children who are culturally aware and respectful of differences?” I was interested in finding a way to prevent my own lack of awareness from being repeated. Instead of noticing a world full of differences for the first time at the age of 20, why not help children and families see these differences all along?

My personal journey has been incredibly rewarding. A lot of moments have been life changing… sort of like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, going from seeing the world in black, white, and hues of gray to seeing the world full of rich and brilliant colors. It has also been challenging and difficult at times. I have had to learn to do a lot of listening and questioning. I have had to learn that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. And I have had to admit that I was wrong. A lot.

I would like to share my journey with you. I will share stories and observations, as well as encourage you to read some things, watch some videos, and do some self-reflection. I plan to ask you a lot of questions along the way. Will you please join me?

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