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home : education : schools December 14, 2017


10/31/2017 1:08:00 PM
Commentary... Building diversity and inclusion in Sisters
By Katy Yoder


Sisters is a great place to call home. The schools provide art and music, sports, an equestrian team, science and engineering. High school students can even get their pilot's license! What's not to like about that? Opportunity seems to be the theme for our community, regardless of our rural and small population.

But is everyone included?

Teachers and volunteers have done an amazing job of introducing the world and its potential to our youth. Chinese language classes are offered in the public schools and students can travel to China. The nonprofit Ten Friends, started by two Sisters teachers, has taken student volunteers to Nepal. And then there's the Three Sisters Wilderness right outside our back door. What better way to learn about glaciation then by hiking to a glacier or studying biology along the beautiful Whychus Creek?

The question is do all our citizens feel welcome in these pursuits? Are there barriers, intentional or not, that keep some people from participating? As my tenure with Sisters Folk Festival comes to a close, one of the most eye-opening aspects has been the realization that there are many people in our community who aren't able or comfortable enough to take full advantage of our community's assets.

There was a time several years ago when the Latino community in Sisters was reaching out by inviting everyone to join them for a dinner that reflected their culinary traditions. When I attended a dinner, I learned that the population of Latinos in our town was much larger than I realized. I was excited to see all of us enjoying great food and getting to know each other better. Their effort to reach out was so appreciated. But that kind of event doesn't happen very much anymore.

Recently, a Sisters Folk Festival contingency attended a seminar put on by The Nonprofit Association of Oregon, called "Advancing Equity in our Daily Lives." It focused on nonprofits and how they can bring a more diverse population to their work. NAO has been doing diversity work for 30 years, but up until recently their efforts haven't made much of an impact in Sisters. Finally, things have begun to change.

Foundations like The Meyer Memorial Trust put their philanthropy on hold while they looked deeply at what was needed in Oregon's communities. After much research and deliberation, their new focus was the following: "Grounded in a vision of a flourishing and equitable Oregon, Meyer is committed to investing in change at the systemic level to ease inequities and disparities." Meyer joined forces with The Collins Foundation, MRG Foundation and The Oregon Community Foundation. Because of their efforts more nonprofits in Oregon began to rethink how they worked with their communities.

This emphasis didn't require nonprofits to change their missions, just make sure they built equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) into their existing programming while asking the question: "Who's not at the table?"

Just like any neighborhood, we're all busy and if we often don't take the time to meet our neighbors we'll never know them. Non-profits and individuals needed a reminder that sometimes all it takes to meet new friends is an invitation to spend time and get acquainted.

The seminar touched on many important topics all focused on bringing an awareness that there's still so much work to be done in Oregon around racial justice. For many people unintentional racism and sexism has created an environment of division. One man at the seminar said he was beginning to realize that as a white man, he had received privileges he had simply taken for granted. His life experience conditioned him to view the world and those around him in a certain light. He hadn't taken the time to consider how a person of color standing right next to him might have a completely different frame of reference based on their past experiences.

In Sisters, there are fewer opportunities to cross paths with people from different cultures. When we do interact, assumptions are made that are often incorrect. There are so many misunderstandings, one that I hear often is people calling anyone who looks Latino "a Mexican." Another is when they assume a person of color is from another country. They really show their lack of sensitivity when they ask them where they're "really" from.

One important point the facilitators brought up was that we all have bias. It's a complex concept and varies with each person's experience. They suggested that the key is to learn how to discuss issues and understand each other, and then hopefully learn and have a relationship based on facts and trust. This will allow people to move through cross-cultural conflict and find ways to work and live together.

The facilitators also challenged the group to consider the necessity for some people to give up some power and privilege so that others can join them on an even playing field. For nonprofits they suggested that when considering new programming to support marginalized populations it's important to first have a relationship with that group. Building relationships before asking questions provides a mindset that ensures we're "doing with" vs. "doing to" the people we're trying to help.

All of these topics held huge potential for uncomfortable feelings and misunderstandings. But it also proved to be an opportunity to expand understanding and have those difficult conversations. Seeing so many people in one room eager to do better and be more inclusive was inspiring. We all have boxes we put ourselves in, whether it's because it feels safe or just too comfortable to leave. I'm seeing that my own boxes have limited my options as a citizen and friend. When I make assumptions about others before I know them, I'm usually wrong. I know my life experiences will be richer when I open doors to friendships with people who have had different life experiences.

Isn't that the American Way?









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