Finding Great Books

I know from my own life experiences that reading can be an excellent way to expand your worldview. Books provide limitless opportunities for children and adults to explore windows and mirrors. As a parent, I am grateful that my kids enjoy reading. I view each new book as a gift and an opportunity to learn. However, sometimes it can be challenging to find great books with positive messages.

Luckily, there are many resources available to help navigate the endless choices of books. Today, I want to share three websites that will help you find amazing books for your children and youth.

    1. Common Sense Media. Common Sense Media “is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in the 21st century.” If you visit their book review page, you can select topics such as: activism, great boy roles models, great girl roles models, and misfits and underdogs. Once you select a certain topic, the website will provide a list of books. Each suggestion includes the book title, a picture of the book cover, an age recommendation, a rating, and a synopsis of the book. For example, I selected “activism” on the topic checklist and 75 books were suggested. I used the book suggestions and sent multiple requests to our public library. I can’t wait to pick them up. I know the books have positive messages and I also know my kids will enjoy reading them. What a terrific resource!
    1. Scholastic. The mission of Scholastic is “to encourage the intellectual and personal growth of all children, beginning with literacy.” The resource, “How to Choose Outstanding Multicultural Books,”  highlights books that relate to 5 cultural groups, including Native American, Latino, African American, Jewish, and Asian American. The book selections range form pre-K to 8th grade. This helpful resource includes a short introductory paragraph about each cultural group, as well as a list of 10 great children’s books, including the title, author and a brief summary. In addition, there are 3 additional sections for each group:
      • A short interview with an author of that specific cultural group.
      • A “keep in mind” section that provides some additional tips for readers.
      • A list of additional authors that represent that particular cultural group.
    1. Teaching Tolerance. The mission of Teaching Tolerance is “to help teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy.” They have a great resource called “What We’re Reading” that is published quarterly. Their book recommendations include the cover page, title, author, summary, and genre of each book (professional development, elementary school, middle school, or high school).  You can find their latest book recommendations here. If you want to see more of their book recommendations, you can type “What We’re Reading” in the search box and you’ll find an archived list of their recommendations.

I hope the next time you and your family head to the library or bookstore, you will utilize these resources to find great multicultural books. Enjoy!

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Making A Commitment

Happy New Year! Although I am not one who makes many New Year’s Resolutions, I did commit to write at least one article every month in 2019. One of the reasons I want to write more is due to the current climate in our country. It seems to me that we are living in difficult and dangerous times. Our responses to cultural differences are deeply dividing our nation. Since the presidential election, our country is witnessing a dramatic rise in hate crimes (Click here to read more) and teachers are reporting an increase in bullying (Click here to read more). It seems that overt prejudice is becoming more normative and socially acceptable with each passing day. I am deeply troubled and heartbroken by these trends. I want to help ease the tensions and increase the amount of respect we have for each other. In short, I believe that we need to talk about culture more than ever.

In the spirit of New Year’s Resolutions, let’s talk about concrete actions you can take in 2019 that will help bring more understanding, respect, and love into the world. I encourage you to commit to doing at least one activity that will increase your cultural competence every month, if not every week. If you want to think about it another way, make a commitment to look out new windows in the New Year.

Below is a list of small steps you can take that will, hopefully, push you out of your comfort zone and challenge you to expand your understanding of your own culture, as well as other cultures. If you need a reminder, read Dimensions of Culture and Additional Cultural Dimensions to help you think about culture in a more inclusive and expansive way.

Action Steps to Begin or Continue on Your Cultural Competence Journey

  1. Read literature about and written by different cultural groups.
  2. Shop at ethnic stores and dine at ethnic restaurants.
  3. Watch foreign language movies or watch a movie with no sound and only use closed captions.
  4. Find a way to be in the minority. If you have the resources and opportunities, travel to areas where you can immerse yourself in another culture.
  5. Attend festivals and events that celebrate specific cultural groups, such as art galleries, theaters, dance companies, museums, libraries, music groups, and places of worship.
  6. Volunteer at a non-profit organization that serves a diverse population.
  7. Read newspapers, magazines, websites, and other educational resources that are dedicated to specific cultural groups.
  8. Get involved with an organization that works for social justice.
  9. Reach out to someone from a different cultural group.

It is better to think of these steps as a journey, rather than a destination. Doing any (or all) of these activities will not help you arrive at a fully-developed sense of cultural competence. Becoming culturally competent takes a lifetime. However, these action steps can get you started or help keep you moving.

As Lao Tzu wisely stated, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I look forward to embarking on this journey together and hearing how these activities helped change the way you see the world and others around you.

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It’s Okay to Be Different and Other Important Lessons Our Children Need to Learn

I was asked to give a sermon at First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati and it was recorded. You can watch the video or read the full transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT: Good morning. My name is Laura Stanton and I have been a member of First Church for 3 years. I am part of the “Stuff Family” that is made up of my husband, Steve Duff, and my 2 kids. I need to thank them for being patient with me while I worked on this last week (and last night). I also want to thank my parents and my in-laws for coming this morning to root me on!

When you are on this side of the podium you get a much better appreciation for all the working pieces that come together every week to make a service happen. I appreciate the Worship Committee giving me this opportunity. I also want to thank June for her guidance preparing the service and Jera for incorporating my music requests! Thank you to everyone who made today happen.

Before I dive in, I want to tell you a little bit about my background and upbringing. I am a native Cincinnatian and not surprisingly my favorite restaurants are Skyline, LaRosa’s and Frisch’s. I love watching the Reds play but I have never been to a Bengals game, nor do I desire to do so.

I am from the Eastside and I graduated from Turpin HS. If I were trying to tell someone about my background, the best analogy I have is The Wizard of Oz. Growing up in Anderson Township was a bit like living in Kansas. My world was black, white, and shades of gray. I did not see much diversity. If there was diversity, it wasn’t something we talked about. In fact, like many of you, it was considered somewhat impolite to notice differences. It just wasn’t something you were supposed to do, so I never thought about diversity because I never needed to. Most people were just like me.

After I graduated from HS, I went to Gettysburg College, a small, liberal arts school in PA. For the first time in my life, I realized I was different. I became aware of my Midwestern upbringing, as well as my social economic background. To say it a different way, I become a minority. I was surrounded by people from the East Coast and people that were from a much higher income bracket than my family. For the first time, I didn’t fit in with the people around me. I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore….

I transferred to Cornell University in NY my sophomore year. When I moved into my dorm room, I found myself in the minority again. This time, I was the only white woman on my wing. It was uncomfortable and exciting all at the same time.

During my 3 years at Cornell, I felt like Dorothy living in Oz. I was living in technicolor. I felt energized and engaged. Even now, those 3 years stand out as some of the best years of my life.

Based on my experiences, I have spent most of my adult life trying to better understand how children learn about the world around them. I have studied and researched the role parents, teachers, and other adults play in shaping children’s views about diversity. And today, I want to share with you some of the insights I have learned.

To help structure my message, I will answer 5 basic questions: What? Why? How? When? and Who?

1. What Differences Are We Supposed to Talk About?

When I talk about differences, I am using one word to describe many things. In the book I read earlier, It’s Okay to Be Different, Todd Parr uses many valuable and fun ways to think about differences. With that in mind, I encourage you to reflect and think about how you would describe yourself. If you need help, think about how someone who knows you well would describe you? Think about what makes you unique?

REFLECT: Take just a few moments to think about this……….

I have found that when we talk about diversity, we often do 2 things. First, we start thinking about everyone else and skip the self-reflection. But it’s important for us to recognize who we are and what we bring to the table.

Second, we often think about the demographic differences that divide us: skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class, age, ability, etc. But sometimes we forget to think about the more personal and smaller differences, like whether or not you’re a dog or a cat person, if you prefer Marvel or DC Comics, if you’re an introvert or extrovert, or whether you will be cheering for the Eagles or Patriots. Or maybe you could care less! ;-).

It’s also important to mention the many layers of diversity. Really, we should think of differences like an onion. There are layers of things that make us different. At the very core are individual differences, shaped by our biology, personality, and individual quirks. The next layer is about our relationships with others including our partner, spouse, friends, co-workers, etc. The next layer is about family, which is also complicated because that includes the family we grew up in, as well as the family we create. We can keep going, we recognize that every single layer is unique to us. While my focus today is on the individual layer, I want to acknowledge the diversity that exists beyond ourselves.

2. Why Talk About Differences?

If you haven’t noticed, or if you haven’t seen the statistics, our country is changing rapidly. There have been all sorts of Census reports about our demographics, but it’s safe to say that the country you grew up in is not the country your kids and grandkids will experience. The increase in people of color, religious diversity, family composition, and openly gay and transgender individuals are just a few of the ways our country is changing.

To better understand these trends, I encourage you and your family to read a book titled, If America Were a Village by David Smith. In the book, Smith shrinks down the population of America to an imaginary village of 100 people. The metaphor helps children and adults easily understand our country’s differences in terms that are easy to understand.

Another reason to talk about differences is because our UU faith compels us to do so. Remember the 1st and 2nd principles:

1st Principle: We believe that each and every person is important.

2nd Principle: We believe that all people should be treated fairly and kindly.

In order to honor these principles, we need to talk to our kids and grandkids about differences. We now know that telling kids not to notice differences (often called the “colorblind” approach) sends the wrong message. It minimizes differences and suggests that they aren’t important.

Another reason to talk about differences is to send a clear message that there is more than one way of being. Personally, one of my biggest frustrations with traditional religions is the underlying belief structure that declares there is only one way. Only one god. Only one path. This narrow line of thinking is the underlying principle of so many different forms of prejudice, bias, and hatred. Sophia Lyon Fahs, a pioneer of UU Religious Education, said in It Matters What We Believe, “Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.”

Compare that to the belief that differences are okay. This idea provides a worldview that has room for everyone. There are multiple paths and journeys. And all paths are equally good and valid. As Fahs says, these beliefs “nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.”

3. How to Talk About Differences?

To talk about differences, we have to feel comfortable as individuals. We have to be grounded in our own experiences and perspectives. We also need to create an environment where it is safe and comfortable to talk about differences.

One way to make sure we have opportunities to talk about differences with our children is to consider an important educational framework that was created by Emily Style. Her “windows and mirrors” framework is based on the idea that mirrors provide the opportunity to see ourselves and our reality, and therefore, provide a sense of personal validation. Windows, on the other hand, provide us with the opportunity to see differences and learn about other people’s experiences.

As parents and teachers, we should strive to balance the windows and mirrors in our children’s lives. Doing so provides children with an equal understanding of themselves, as well as others. This will help our children understand themselves and their place in the diverse world around them.

This framework helps me make sense of my educational upbringing. I realize I spent 18 years of my life surrounded by mirrors! But fortunately for me, my college experience gave me the opportunity to gaze out many, many windows. Without a doubt, looking out windows and learning about diversity were the most meaningful aspects of my college experience.

This is a good time to think about your home. I have no doubt that you have mirrors around your home. But it’s important to think about windows. Do your kids’ have the opportunity to gaze out windows and learn about someone else’s reality. Take a moment and think about ways you could provide more windows. Some hints are books, toys, movies, music, and invited guests…….

In addition to providing mirrors and windows, we also need some a specific set of tools when we talk about differences. In the late 80s, a progressive group of educators developed an anti-bias approach to cultural diversity. They wanted to do more than simply acknowledge diversity. They wanted to help children learn to embrace, respect, and celebrate differences.

Their anti-bias approach tells us that we need to do 3 things when we talk to our children about differences. We need to:

  1. Acknowledge cultural differences.
  2. Find similarities in spite of the differences.
  3. Respect the difference, without judgment.

These elements have to be part of the conversations we have with our children. Let me give you an example. Let’s imagine your child notices that the eyes of her Asian friend are a different shape than her eyes. She asks you, “Why does Mai have funny-looking eyes?”

An anti-bias response may be:

Element 1: “I don’t think Mai has funny-looking eyes. She has eyes that are a different shape than yours.” (Acknowledge the difference)

Element 2: “Mai’s eyes are almond-shaped just like her parents’ eyes. Your eyes are round, just like your parents’ eyes.” (Find a similarity)

Element 3: “Both you and Mai have beautiful eyes, even though they are different shapes.” (Respect the difference)

REFLECT: Consider a time your child asked a question about a difference that you didn’t know how to answer or you think you didn’t answer well. Take a moment and see if you can create an anti-bias response to their question. Remember it needs to include all 3 elements.

One other footnote about how to talk about differences comes from disability studies.  Their important advice: use people-first language. What does that mean? When you are describing someone, focus on the person before the label. Say “a man is Jewish” rather than “a Jewish man”. “The girl who is blind” rather than saying “the blind girl”. It’s an easy and important way to be respectful. Focus on the person first!

Knowing how to talk about differences will help prepare your children to understand a world that is increasingly diverse. When you include the anti-bias approach in your conversations, you send healthy messages about differences to your child. In doing so, you will help them develop cultural competence, a beneficial and necessary asset to have in today’s world.

4. When Should You Talk About Differences?

Every chance you get! If you need help tackling an especially difficult issue, my best advice is to head to the library. I am a firm believer that no one is too old for children’s books. You can find a children’s book about all sorts of diversity topics, including adoption, growing up with 2 moms, having a parent in jail, getting around in a wheelchair, and talking about different skin colors.

There is even research that suggests that children’s books about cultural diversity facilitate a personal connection between the reader and the story, which leads to more empathetic behavior.

So find books that help you feel comfortable. Read them over a few times and when you’re ready, share them with your kids or grandkids. Be ready for a discussion and incorporate the anti-bias approach, but also realize there might not be a discussion. The truth is that kids accept differences a lot easier than adults to. Sometimes when I tackle a topic I think may be difficult, my kids totally surprise me with their understanding, sensitivity, and empathy.

I also want to give you permission to stall for time. If you are caught off guard and don’t know what to say, that’s okay. But if your child says something that makes you or someone else feel uncomfortable, you need to address it. You can decide the best time to do so but letting insensitive or hurtful comments “slide” teaches your child the wrong message. No matter what, we want our children and grandchildren to see that it is okay to ask questions, that it’s normal to talk about differences, and it’s important to be respectful.

5. Who Should Talk About Differences?

All of us need to talk about differences. As I stand here today, I am aware that my perspective has to do with my life journey and experiences. I am just one person and I know others in this room have different perspectives to share.

It’s also important to remember that we need to be responsible for our own learning. If you have questions about a cultural group or a difference, educate yourself. Do not expect someone to do the work for you. Use the resources around you to enlighten yourself and find opportunities to learn.

Finally, I want to mention the resources we have right here in this community. We have so many advocates, allies, and activists in our congregation. While I have kept my remarks very general, there are more specific tips and pointers that can be helpful when talking about specific cultural groups. Remember the people who are on the front lines and be sure to ask them for their insights. It would be a shame if we didn’t take advantage of the amazing people in this room who devote their time and energy advocating for LGBTQ individuals and families, immigrants, impoverished neighborhoods, people experiencing homelessness, public school students, fair wages, equal access, and many, many other social justice issues.

In Summary

If you believe that we our country is unjust and unequal, then you cannot be silent. These are trying times, my friends, and many of the cultural differences we have discussed today are seen as threats by our current President and his administration. More than ever, we need to speak up. We can no longer remain quiet. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Our faith compels us to fight injustice. Talking about our differences is an important first step on the journey towards acceptance and equality. Realize that your journey will include missteps. If you get stuck, ask for help. If you make a mistake, apologize. Embrace any discomfort you experience, for it is a sure sign of growth.

I love the title of Todd Parr’s book because it’s a wonderful mantra, “it’s okay to be different.” This phrase reminds all of us, and kids especially, that the differences they see around them are normal, safe, and fun.

But the mantra, “It’s okay to be different” also implies that every kid and adult should celebrate their own differences. We should be proud of the things that make us unique and special.

Last year, the movie Wonder came out and was based on the popular children’s book by the same name (written by R.J. Palacio). One of my favorite quotes from the book is between Auggie, a young boy, and his older sister, Via. Auggie has facial abnormalities and often tries to hide his face from other people. His sister Via tells him, “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.”

We all need the reminder that our differences are what make us special, unique, and make us stand out from the crowd. Embrace those differences and celebrate them, whether they are yours or someone else’s.

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The Importance of Seeing Yourself

Early on, I wrote about the need to balance windows and mirrors in our lives. An important anti-bias framework suggests the importance of “mirrors” and the need for people to see themselves reflected in the world around them. Equally important is the need for “windows” and opportunities for people to gaze outside their own world, to see and learn about other people’s realities.

Minority groups are less likely to see mirrors and more likely to see windows. The windows they see are often focused on the majority group and this imbalance can hurt one’s sense of self-worth and confidence. It’s easy to feel invisible if you don’t have mirrors around you, whether you are a person of color, a woman, someone who identifies as GLBTQ, or a person with a disability.

For the past 20 years, the White House has hosted an iftar dinner to commemorate the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. But this year, there was no iftar dinner at the White House. Despite the fact that Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama hosted this celebratory dinner over the years, it didn’t happen this year. The holiday and the religious tradition were ignored. Invisible. Not seen. Imagine how that would feel if you were Muslim. No mirror for you this year.

Now, compare that to a couple of news stories that caught my attention in late May of 2017. There was a heart-warming story about a high school that included a picture of a student and his service dog in the school yearbook. Andrew “AJ” Schalk has Type 1 diabetes and he goes to school every day with his service dog, Alpha. Rather than ignore AJ’s unique health condition, the school decided to recognize and honor his important life-saving partnership by including an adorable school photo of Alpha. (Click here to read more.)

The same week, a photo appeared with the spouses of political leaders during the NATO summit in Brussels. The photo included 9 women and 1 man. The man is married to the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who is gay. Although heterosexual men have been included in this group of spouses before, this picture was unique because it featured a gay spouse. (Click here to read more.)

These last two examples feature people who are often invisible. Imagine what it would feel like if you were a young person who is gay or who has a service dog. These stories are mirrors. They provide connections. They provide a message that you matter. Your story matters. You are not alone. We see you.

These two stories also serve as windows. They remind us that some people rely on service animals to make it through their day. They remind us that not everyone is straight. They remind us that we all have differences and that’s perfectly okay. It’s normal. These are equally important messages.

So once again, I urge you to reflect on the messages your children receive. Are there enough mirrors? Too many? What about windows? Can there ever be enough?

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Happy Loving Day

Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that state bans on interracial marriages were unconstitutional. The landmark decision was based on the case Loving vs. Virginia, named after Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving. The two fell in love and got married but since he was white and she was part Native American and part black, their marriage was illegal in their home state of Virginia. In fact, they were both arrested and jailed for breaking the law.

In 1967, the Lovings won the right to be legally married and the Supreme Court decision overturned the law in the 16 states that had banned interracial marriage. Since then, June 12th has become known as Loving Day, an annual celebration to honor this historic ruling.

Fast forward to today and statistics show that mixed marriages have increased dramatically. According to the Pew Research Center, 1 out of every 6 newlyweds today marries someone from a different ethnic group or with different skin color. If you also include families who have adopted internationally and/or across ethnic and color lines, you see great diversity not only between families but also within families.

I have mentioned both family of origin and family structure as two important dimensions of culture. In honor of Loving Day, I encourage you to focus on increasing the number of mirrors around your home if your family is mixed. If your family is similar in terms of ethnic background and skin color, then I encourage you to increase the number of windows your children have to discover and learn about mixed families.

How can you get started? First, visit your local library and request books that describe families that have different ethnic backgrounds and different skin colors. I recommend:

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko

black is brown is tan by Arnold Adoff

My Two Grannies by Floella Benjamin

Black, White, Just Right! by Marguerite W. Davol

How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Friedman

Two Mrs. Gibsons by Toyomi Igus

I Am Tan by Michele Rose

Before you share these books with your children, read them yourself and make sure you’re comfortable with each book. When you’re ready, sit down and read them together. As you start conversations about families that are mixed, remember these important tips:

  • Don’t make any assumptions. Don’t assume that two people who look alike are family members and don’t assume that two people who look different are not family members.
  • Talk to your children about the mixed families you know. Identifying and talking about differences is a great starting point and it’s a healthy thing to do as long as there is no judgement. There is no right or wrong way to be a family.

I hope this information is helpful and encourages you to think about different families. Now that you know about Loving Day, what will you and your family do to celebrate this special day?

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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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