Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

November 18, 2015

UW Bothell’s Diversity Workshops: From Dialogue to Action

Terryl Ross prompts meaningful conversations on race and equity and moves them from talk to action

Terryl Ross, Ph.D., Director of Diversity, University of Washington Bothell

“I hear people say they wish they’d done these workshops earlier. People think I’m going to lecture them or tell them they have to like black people or be ‘politically correct.’ Instead, we explore what the changes in their community mean, and it becomes real.” —Terryl Ross, Ph.D.

At the University of Washington Bothell, Terryl Ross, director of diversity, helps people move from having conversations about race, equity and diversity to taking action. He builds opportunities for dialogue, bringing people from diverse backgrounds together to learn from each other and from experts about race and equity. “People are ready to have a higher-level conversation that leads to real action,” says Ross, “and they want to have it in a safe place and with people who are different from them.”

As part of this work, Ross has designed several workshops that offer students, faculty, staff and community members the opportunity to learn more about themselves, their fellow participants and the future of their communities. Most importantly, workshop participants work together to choose a course of action based on their shared experience, and leave empowered to do more. This year, ideas generated in previous workshops are being implemented campus-wide at UW Bothell.

“As our society continues on a path toward a more ‘color-blind’ attitude, more people need to be aware of the subtle ways in which institutional racism is further embedded in our every action,” says Karin Clayton (UW Bothell ’07), a database coordinator at Wellspring Family Services who attended the UW Bothell diversity conference Ross organized in spring 2015. “The unconscious ways in which people treat others is, to me, almost more damaging than outright abuse because that person is unaware of their impact on others. Attending events like this will hopefully plant the seed of awareness.”

Ross employs several techniques to help participants talk about race and equity. He focuses on both data and identity as tools to start conversations about differences rather than political correctness, and provides people with a common language and examples to talk about the issues. “This stuff is here whether we are in this workshop or not,” says Ross. “So, how do we deal with this?”

Telling the story of our changing community through data

Relying on census data, Ross introduces some workshops by telling the story of “two Americas” — two demographic groups roughly equal in size. One tends to be older, whiter, more conservative and interested in health care; the other is younger, ethnically diverse, more liberal and interested in education. By sharing data on these groups’ growth trends, political leanings and more, workshop participants begin with a mutual starting place. They aren’t asked for their opinions. Instead, they talk about what the demographic trends around increasing diversity can reveal about the future of a community and what they might be seeing in their own neighborhoods. Ross says, “If everyone had a thought bubble over their head about how they see the country, each one would be different. Working with data takes the opinion out and helps people see the patterns and systems. It’s powerful because it gives them a common starting point to talk.”

Identity as middle ground since everyone has one…or many

Identity is another powerful conversation starter, notes Ross, since everyone has multiple identities — some stronger than others. He finds identity a helpful concept to introduce the topic of race in context. “The more diverse the audience, the better the workshop,” says Ross.

Participants in Ross’ diversity workshop learn about different dimensions of identity. People have more control over some dimensions than others, and some may change over time, such as education level, family status, religion, military experience or where they live. Others we are born to, such as race, ethnicity, age, mental and physical abilities, or sex at birth.

Sample Identity Wheel: As a starting place for deeper conversation, workshop participants map and discuss the intersectionality of their own identities. Dimensions with more relative importance to an individual are marked closer to the edges.

Ross asks participants to plot aspects of their identities on a wheel-shaped chart, from race to family status and everything in between, assigning relative importance to each. Ross says, “It becomes very personal to them. No two people have the same wheel yet they can find interesting commonalities. Both may rate race as very important but they are from different ethnic groups, for example, or maybe they are the same race but one says it matters a lot to them and for the other it doesn’t.” Considering the dimensions of identity prompts genuine questions and real listening about what race and other identities mean to each person.

Developing a common language for talking about race

Ross defines terms and shares examples when he moderates conversations about microaggressions in the workplace and in the classroom. Participants learn that microaggressions are “brief, often unintentional and without intended malice, everyday exchanges that belittle and alienate a member of a marginalized group.” They include actions like confusing a person’s ethnicity with that of a different group; consistently mispronouncing a person’s name; interrupting; only making eye contact or taking questions from people of one group; making jokes aimed at minorities; or dismissing the validity of slights described by minorities.

Ross shares examples from media clips. “After sharing a clip with participants, they get it. Groups find it very powerful to discuss a real example. It’s not theoretical,” explains Ross.

Workshop participants develop the language to describe things they may have seen but not understood before. Clayton, the UW Bothell alumna who invited Ross to give a workshop at her office’s “Lunch and Learn” program, had an immediate revelation from that discussion. “I had multiple experiences with a coworker that were uncomfortable. I couldn’t pinpoint what the issue was, but I knew it didn’t feel quite right,” she says. “Afterwards, I realized I was experiencing a microaggression, which enabled me to process the encounters in a different manner.”

Moving from talk to action

All workshops end with a call to action. Groups craft a plan for how they can start making changes, get involved or develop a community service project that would address the issues they discussed. According to Ross, “The workshop explains a lot and participants feel that they are more grounded — with language to describe things they’ve seen but didn’t understand. I ask, ‘If you could do something, what would it be?’” says Ross. “Last year, a group at UW Bothell decided they wanted to host a dialogue on race so we’re pursuing that this year.”

Increasing opportunities for dialogues on difference

Heading into his second year as UW Bothell’s director of diversity, Ross has received even more requests to hold workshops for groups both on and off the UW Bothell campus. Ross is planning what he calls “Bothell 2.0,” new programming that includes both the second annual Diversity Week in spring 2016 and an expanded Diversity Conference open to the community. New this year is a dialogue on race, an idea that developed from workshop participants. All of it is designed to increase opportunities for students to find commonalities and see the humanity in people different from themselves.

Bothell images

Given the growing diversity of Bothell — both the city and the University — these workshops are leveraging a unique opportunity, and serve as amodel for creating conversations throughout the entire community. Photos courtesy of Terryl Ross.