Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cultural Harmony Closing Keynote Message: Speak Up!

Dr. Andre Guerrero, Director of Programs for Language Minority Students in Arkansas
Celebrating Cultural Harmony Conference 2010

This is a portion of my keynote address for the closing session of the Fifth Annual Welcome the Children Celebrating Cultural Harmony conference. Included are segments of the Speak Up! Teaching Tolerance Project from Southern Poverty Law Center with permission.

...thank you. Working to understand others who may not be like us can be difficult, challenging. Sometimes we need to shift our ways of being, thinking, and acting. This can and does stretch us outside of our comfort zone. And this is where the learning takes place. As one of my sheroes Gloria Anzaldua said, I change myself, I change the world.

We have been talking about differences for three days now at this conference. Dr, Andre Guerrero reminded us to do no harm and reach for the courage. Maria Palacios shared about finding our personal power as we embrace all of who we are. They both mentioned that we are many layers that create who we are. In my workshops I often refer to our "personal backpack" of experiences. How we are each born with a backpack. We have some things in it from those who came before us and as we go through life we add experiences to it. And this is the lens of how we view the world and each other. Sometimes we only see the surface and as one of the speakers mentioned in their session we think we know who someone is but do we really. We have to make the investment, go with intention and ask questions, dig deeper. Only then can we make the authentic connection to another human being.

You may know Welcome The Children Project (WTC) as a conference. But WTC is more than just this conference we are a year round project with training, a resource library, e bulletin list and leadership and trainer resource.  Just as you might have made assumptions about WTC we make assumptions about people without first asking questions or digging deeper to find out more. Its in the finding out more where we begin to build bridges. As Gloria Anzaldua says, Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks. Its not an easy task.I remember what my Grandfather said, "if its worth something its worth working for."

Its risky sharing all of who we are and sometimes we choose not to reveal who we are because we are afraid of rejection. Afraid because we have been taught to separate not to communicate. But when we dare to take the risk to reveal with another human being then we can begin the dialog. 

How many of us in this room work with people?  Does your job involve people not just your coworkers but real live other human beings? As service providers, counselors, social workers, teachers and others who work with people of all ages and abilities we need to structure for success for ourselves just as we do for others. And that can mean we may need to take a risk. 

As we start to take risks sometimes we make mis-takes it takes practice and we have to be loving with one another as we take up this work. But sometimes unknowingly we can cause an "ouch" for another. Just yesterday in the presenters room we brought in lunch from the hotel. One of my Latina sisters decided we needed a bit of comfort food of our own so she brought us some tacos with "all the fixins" as we say in Tejas. There were Latinas from different backgrounds in the room of all ages. There were also White and Black presenters, volunteers, and staff. The room sparkled with English, Spanish and Spanglish as they each shared a meal and stories. Building new friendships and renewing old ones. Just as I was getting up someone came into the room and said, "It smells like Mexican in here" 

Now I know the woman who made the comment didn't mean any malice in her statement. She was not Latina and I am sure didn't think before she made the statement. She was just making a comment because the room was very fragrant at the time. But it was an "ouch" for those of us who were Mexican or of Mexican decent. When we get an "ouch" one way to heal it is to find an ally and share it. Little "ouches" can build up so healing is important. I shared it with a couple of close Latinas sisters in the room, one dear friend who I haven't seen in over ten years back in Houston. We joked about it, started smelling each other to see if there was any truth to the statement. And laughed. Sometimes laughter with an ally is the only healing medicine for these small "ouches". And they can build up and cause real emotional and physical challenges if you don't find an outlet. So know that as we grow in our walk we will most likely give and receive "ouches" so be aware and be prepared to take charge of your healing.

I have a personal life philosophy of not asking others something that I am not willing to give or do myself. So today I am asking you to step up, take a risk and share more of who you are to another, so I will start. I am more than just the conference speaker chair and WTC consultant trainer. I am Latina, Tejana, Chicana, a Mother, Grandmother. I have a life partner whom I love dearly. I am a person with an invisible disability. I’m an exhibiting and selling artist, writer, spoken word artist.  And I use art, education and dialog to do social justice work wherever I may be. I am many, many layers. 

Now I just took a risk and shared with all of you more about who I am. I have not changed, but have you changed how you see me? Is there something I said that made you shift about how you might work with me, approach me? I’m  the same, its you that has maybe changed. You see in revealing we invite others to accept us. And the risk lies in the fact that they may reject us. Sometimes we want others to reveal to make our work easier. We ask families and children to share with us as service providers, teachers, and counselors. They are taking a risk.  Are you? Are you opening yourself up to build rapport, begin or continue the relationship?

 Each of us in this room has a story to share. This community we have created over the past three days has been a place where we can be a hero or shero for another. Right now I would like you to take a few minutes to reflect on the sessions and keynotes you have attended. 

What touched you? What spoke to your Spirit? What caused you to stretch yourself to view the world through another's eyes? What did you learn about yourself? Did someone reveal to you in a session? At lunch or dinner? In the hall or at break? Take a moment and I will ask that when you are ready please raise your hand and give us a brief reflection about your experience.  Please be authentic in your sharing.
 (At this point in the keynote I stopped and participants took the mic and shared from the heart. They shared stories, cried, laughed, and spontaneously sang a faith song. I applauded them for stretching and being open.)

Thank you for sharing. Attending this conference is a step, a first step. As with experiential learning we are at the place in our shared learning experience where we are reflecting. It’s important that we do this as individuals before we leave to take this shared experience back to our daily work and lives. So we don’t lose it.

 Please take out your program and turn to the pages that say notes in the back. I want you to write down the next steps in this process. It is our collective responsibility to take what we have gathered these past few days and move forward. By doing this step we are at the "now what" part of our experience. Now that we have this information how do we take this back with love, passion, and commitment to our communities?

In my walk on this Good Red Road of life I have called on many resources to build my "tool belt "of skills. I want to share with you one of the resources that I think fits our experience, Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project. If you are an educator or work with children, youth and families it’s a valuable resource of information. Websites, lesson plans, book lists, activities and more.
Today what I want to share with you is called the "Speak up!" project The project has Six Steps to speaking up. So if you would, let’s focus on these steps and how we can use them in our work and life.

Now I am being authentic with you when I say its not easy…but its worth it. Whatever your situation if you remember these six steps it will help you to speak up against everyday bigotry. In any situation, assess your safety, both physical and emotional. There is a risk, and that must be acknowledged as you make your own choice to Speak up!

We have all encountered moments in work or daily life that have challenged us. Those situations where someone has used an inappropriate term, joke, word or phrase that made us uncomfortable. We know its going to happen. So be ready.

Summon your courage, whatever it takes to get that courage. How will you find your courage? What is it that propels you to step up? Where does your courage come from? Is it an experience you have had where you were faced with bigotry? A family member, your parents, your children, your spouse/partner, a close friend? Was it an elder or maybe a historical event past or recent that touched you? Was it something from your childhood that causes you to call up your courage?
My courage comes from the fear and anger of being the only Latina child in an all White classroom and a teacher who thought she was doing good for me but wasn’t. Her words were everyday "ouches" that Ied to emotional scars. Scars that I wear as a battle cry to be a brave warrior, take a risk, and speak up. That is why I do the work I do.To speak up so that I might make the path more clear for those that follow me. I would like you to take a moment and picture that experience, person or event. Next to where your wrote Be ready I want you to write, my courage comes from and then list the person, experience or event.

Now that you have identified your courage source I want you to think about what you might say when a situation arises. To boost your courage have something to say in mind before an incident happens. We use open ended questions in our work  so open ended questions are often good ways to start. You can say something like, “Why did you say that?” “How did you develop that belief?” By asking questions it shifts the situation.

Sometimes pointing out the behavior helps someone hear what they are really saying. Clarifying what is said sheds light on it. Again as we do when we work with children, youth, or adults we know how to separate the behavior from the person. Try to avoid labeling, name calling, or the use of loaded terms like racist, homophobic, or sexist. If we use names we can bring up a wall, remember the goal is to communicate not alienate.

If the speaker is someone you have a relationship with – relative, friend, co worker, call on their higher principles. “I’ve always thought of you as a fair-minded person, I can't believe you would say something that sounds so bigoted.”

Remember people are complex. What they say in one moment is not necessarily an indication of everything they think. Sometimes there may be situations were there is group think going on; and I don't know when that has ever been a good thing. Group think usually means no one is thinking. But the pressure to belong and not go against the group can be great. So social belonging may be the reason for the statement and by appealing to their core principles you can begin the conversation.

You can’t control another person. I have raised children and if you have you know that its true, you cant control another person. But you can say, “Don’t tell those jokes in my presence anymore. If you do I will leave.” Or “My workplace is not the place I allow bigoted remarks to be made. I cant control what you say outside of this space but here I ask that you respect my wishes.” Then be sure you follow through and if you have to leave then do so.

The point is to draw the line, to say “I don’t want you to use that language when I’m around". Even if attitudes wont change you have shut off the behavior. You limit the chances of more people having to hear it.

When doing this kind of work to end everyday bigotry its important to seek out like-minded people. Take a look around the room there are people here who can be an ally to you. Ask for support in whatever ways they can.

Don’t forget to return the favor, be an ally. If you aren’t the first voice to speak up against everyday bigotry, then be the next voice!

Always speak up, don’t be silence by fear. Draw from that courage source and build your allies. To be an ally means we lead by example, model and inspire others to do the same. Lets not leave walking wounded.

I recently read an article about happiness vs. elevation. There were two control groups. The first one was shown a tape of people doing funny things. The second group was shown a tape of people helping others. The group with the happy tape responded with happiness and wanted to feel more, they wanted another happy hit. The group that witnessed people helping others, were motivated to go out and do something for others. The pass it forward kind of experience. As I prepared for this keynote I came across this quote by one of my favorite teachers, Howard Zinn. "To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness...If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and... places (and there are so many) where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act...”
Remember its our collective responsibility to challenge bigotry to make a better place for the Greater Good and for our communities.

Remember change happens slowly, and people take small steps. When I first came out my Mother didn’t speak to me for years. This year for the first time in over ten years I am going home to my Mothers home and welcomed with my life partner to celebrate the holidays. Keep the faith, miracles can happen. Change takes time, small steps are important steps.

Speaking up to everyday bigotry is not something we accomplish but something we integrate into who we are everyday. It’s an ongoing process. Stay prepared and keep speaking up. Don’t risk silence.

Just as you would speak up if someone were in physical danger or harm speak up and say something. You can always go back and add to it rather than wish you had said something. As my Grandfather would say, "do something, even if its wrong."  You can always go back and add something just intervene. If you don’t speak up, you surrender part of yourself. You let bigotry win.

I had the opportunity to spend time with a friend’s kindergarten classroom a few years ago. She invited me because of my community work using art and cross cultural dialog. Let me first ask in order to be respectful to all of you as I tell this story, do you prefer White, Caucasian or Euro American? Black or African American? This is relevant to the story otherwise I would not use the ethnic descriptor. Thank you.

We decided we would have the children make puppets. I brought skin tone paper cut outs and the children selected and decorated them. Then we got in a circle to share and each child was asked to tell us about what they created. If you have ever worked with young children or have any in your life then you know that you never know what they will say when you ask open-ended questions. That day we heard stories not of childhood innocence but of real life experiences. Stories of who was being raised by a Grandmother, who had a family member in prison, and one child was in foster care. I was happy to see that each one shared and the entire group listened and respected each others stories.

But there was one story that I stuck with me to this day. A girl shared about her recent experience at a summer camp where she was the only White child enrolled. She said the other girls wouldn’t play with her because she didn’t have the same braids and hair that they did and how that made her cry because she was different.

One of the little Black girls in the class said yes I remember that happening and I went to hug her. I smiled and thought that was the end of the story and how as children we naturally comfort one another.

But the little girl continued. She said, " I was so angry with them I grabbed her hand and took her over to those mean girls and said they were mean. Then I told them to look at her face and I know she has white skin but she is a nice girl and we should play with her too. I just looked at them and grabbed her face again and said look into her eyes I know that we can play with her because I know there has to be a Black girl in there somewhere inside."

I smiled and realized what she was saying. She made the choice to see beyond the differences and to speak up. In her own way she was telling the group that beneath the surface of who we see and what we think we see we are all human. It was one of my greatest lessons. She was both human and kind  in her gesture to speak up. Children are not just our future but they are our teachers of today if we step back and listen. They remind us that human kindness, dignity, respect, and love are what we all need and want. So if this kindergarten child can speak up, I know you can! 
Lets practice. I want you to post this phrase where you can see it every day, "I will speak up". So lets do a call and response I will make a statement and then you will respond with , I will speak up!
When faced with discrimination or emotional injury to myself 
I will speak up
When I hear sexist comments, jokes or stereotypes
I will speak up
In the face of anti immigrant discrimination or exclusion
I will speak up
When I hear someone not using people first language
I will speak up
In the face of disability discrimination and or exclusion
I will speak up
When I hear homophobic slurs or stereotypes
I will speak up
When I hear jokes about some one challenged by addiction and or mental health
I will speak up
When I hear negative comments about homeless or poor individuals, children, and families
I will speak up
In the face of racism
I will speak up
When I hear negative comments in reference to age young or older
I will speak up
When I hear someone make a negative comment about some one's size or physical appearance
I will speak up
When a family is discriminated against because of family composition or having a family member in prison
I will speak up
When I witness negative, hurtful actions or words against any human being
I will speak up

Thank you for speaking up Thank you for being a part of this learning community for the past three days. Go in a Good Way and be Good Medicine to one another.
Thank you, Gracias, Tlazocamati

Here are some of the fabulous conference workshop presenters! 

Maria Palacios, writer, disability activist, national spoken word artist and long time hermana from Htown!

Minijean Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, cross cultural educator  Spirit Trickey, writer, community educator

             Randi Randles, President and Principal Learning Strategist of Contigo Learning Experience and Certified Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Practitioner

Bob and Mary Lou Wallner, featured in an article in People magazine (November 19, 2007), as well as the award-winning documentary film, For The Bible Tells Me So.They are the founders of TEACH-ministries. TEACH is the acronym for: To Educate About the Consequences of Homophobia.

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