I am a member of the Peace Center Committee at Lane. The Center hosts an annual Peace Symposium during Spring term, which the committee is responsible for organizing. In 2014, as we were preparing to make a schedule for the symposium, I felt very unsettled.
The goal of the Peace Center Committee when planning the symposium was to create a space in which we could invite students, faculty, and staff, as well as those from the communities surrounding campus, to engage in open and honest conversations about oppression, power, cultural paradigms, diversity, and privilege that are necessary components of building and expanding cultural competency and fostering peace.
But, as we sat down to map out the scheduling for the event, I realized that nearly all of our speakers were middle-class, highly-educated and Caucasian. While I don’t think anyone overly planned for that to happen, it is what happened. And here I sat looking at a list of speaker’s names, wondering what to do. Certainly, given our larger goal for the symposium, we couldn’t simply pretend as though we didn’t notice the disconnect between this goal and the line-up of speakers who would fill the space of the symposium.
I was still relatively new to the committee at that point, and while I wanted to speak up, I was afraid to do so. I sat there silently for a while, hoping that someone else would point out the discrepancy so I wouldn’t have to. But that didn’t happen; and I had to decide whether to remain silent or to force the introvert in me to speak up about a sensitive and complex issue in a room full of people I didn’t yet know well.
To my relief, once I pointed out the discrepancy, there was agreement that this was a problem that we needed to address. I suggested that we perhaps draft an opening statement to be read at the start of the symposium wherein we acknowledged the homogeneity of our speakers and the ways in which this homogeneity was problematic to our larger goals. Others agreed.
I drafted an initial statement, and over the following weeks, the fabulous member of the Committee helped me to revise, shape, and mold the statement into something we were all comfortable with and which represented our commitment to the larger goals of the conference.
On the morning of the conference, I read the final draft of the statement, which can be read here, to those in attendance.
I was approached several times during the conference by people who wanted to talk to me about this opening statement. Many of those conversations were positive; all were powerful. The most powerful of all was one that did not have such a positive beginning.
I had stepped outside the Longhouse for a bit of fresh air and one of the committee members came and found me and told me there was a woman inside looking for me. I went inside and was approached by a woman who was clearly very upset.
While she acknowledged the importance of including the statement in the symposium, she was quite upset that I had been the person to read the statement. For her perspective, since the symposium was being held in the Longhouse, it should have been a local Native American who read that statement.
Of all the potential reactions I’d expected, I was totally unprepared for this one. I listened to the woman talk for a long time, giving her space to voice her ideas and thoughts as well as share her emotions, which became increasingly intense as she spoke. I tried really hard to stay focused on her words and what she was expressing and not to let my brain wonder off into composing a response to what she was saying instead of listening to her.
When she finished talking, there was a long, awkward pause in which I tried, as quickly as I could, to process what she had just shared with me and compose a calm, thoughtful, caring response. She stared intently at me waiting for what I would say, and the longer she looked at me, the more my introverted self wanted to walk away without saying anything. But I knew I could not.
After I few minutes I took a deep breath and began to speak. I told her that I had tried to carefully listen to what she had to say and to understand, as best I could, what was upsetting her. I acknowledged the importance of ensuring that the Longhouse was a place where Native voices could be heard and said that I agreed with her that this was a vital role of the Longhouse. I told her that this was actually one of the reasons that I had felt our opening statement was a necessary part of the symposium, since most of the voices that we would hear from during the event would come from those of European decent.
And then I explained that from my perspective, it would have been inappropriate to ask a Native American to read our opening statement because for me that would have done two very problematic things. First, it would have passed along the responsibility of addressing the problem of homogeneity the committee had inadvertently created when planning the symposium to a “minority” voice, rather than forcing those of us on the committee, also mostly middle-class, highly educated, and Caucasian, to acknowledge and take responsibility for this issue. Second, I felt that making such a request would reinforce the idea that fostering genuine diversity and cultural awareness is the sole responsibility of members of “minority groups” rather than the collective responsibility of society.
While her anger was still present, it was clear that she had taken the time to listen to me and hear me.
What followed was a lengthy conversation between the two of us. It was a difficult and emotional conversation for both of us, as such conversations often are, and a conversation we each acknowledged as feeling unfinished when it was time for us to part. But while we came to no neat, tidy resolution, what we did accomplish was genuinely engaging with each other, which for me is the ultimate success of cross-cultural communication.