Infinite sides to the story

The first morning of my new position as Faculty Fellow for Intercultural Initiatives at UMD, I am greeted with the news headline: “Brawl breaks out at Ohio kindergarten graduation.” It started over spilled punch! And yes, it was the adults who were brawling. As I begin this new position—one that involves the continued work toward a more inclusive campus climate—I cannot help but reflect on the greater climate of the Duluth community and society in general. We are not in a vacuum at UMD. None of us are. Rather, we are part of a broader community, each with a culture of our own yet reflected and intersected with each other. A teacher can work to create an inclusive climate in his classroom, or a supervisor in her office—yet the student and employee are still part of a larger community when they leave that space. Yes, I believe that these microclimates matter. The climate you create in your own center echoes out to others who, in turn, spread that energy of positive or negative. “Every morning goodness or meanness . . . it echoes all over the world” (lyrics from “Echoes,” recorded by Dar Williams). Yet how can we all work together to bring those microclimates together toward a more inclusive Duluth? The first day in my classroom, I ask students to assume that I am on their side until they are proven otherwise. This is harder for some than for others. Some students come with a personal history that makes it seem as though a teacher is out to get him/her. Students from non-dominant groups have often lived with years of micro-aggressions from dominant culture teachers, classmates and systems in general. In addition, staff members may have felt unacknowledged and marginalized in their units. Faculty who feel repeatedly asked to do more with less, or to integrate the latest new initiative into their teaching with little time for reflection on best practice for the students. And administrators try to balance budget realities with human concerns, but might only hear what they are NOT doing after sleepless nights and 14-hour days on the job.

As complex individuals, we are each a prism. There are many sides and aspects to me and there are even more sides to the story—my story, our story, the story of what happened over the spilled punch. The story of who I am and what I bring into the office, classroom or parking lot—not just from my day outside of work but also from the accumulation of my lived experience. I think about my request of students when I find myself in a parking lot going in the direction opposite the arrows. I wish that the driver who is honking and yelling at me with fists and judgmental accusations would not assume that I did this on purpose with the sole intent of making his day more difficult. I think about my students when I am the person on the other end when a driver pulls out in front of me. How can we create a climate of curiosity and compassion described by Parker Palmer in his book “Healing the Heart of Democracy”? Two years ago, spearheaded by the Diversity Commission, UMD embarked upon a theme of identity and cultural self-awareness. Who am I and how did I come to be here—at UMD, in Duluth, in the U.S.? What is the complex story of my own identity that brings me here and how does it intersect with you, your story, your identity – present and history? How will we move forward—toward the future—together?

This year, the Chancellor’s broader climate initiative and the UMD Diversity Commission are partnering up to take that theme a step further and to look at the “infinite sides to the story.” Inspired by Angie Frank and her theater production titled “73 sides to the story,” and brilliantly created and performed by youth at Woodland Hills, UMD will take the same prism perspective as we learn, work, live, play, compete, create and cooperate together this year.

So . . . the next time someone spills your punch—or somehow gets in your way —we ask you to first assume no ill intent. At infinite sides to the story, IF you uncover that indeed he/she did it on purpose, you still might want to offer up your middle finger. You also might have a deeper understanding of the complex story that she/he brought to the party that might help to at least explain how or why things unfolded the way they did. It doesn’t give you your punch back (intent does not equal impact), but I believe it does help toward understanding and compassion, healing and building community.

This campaign is NOT about “let’s just all be nice and get along.” Quite the opposite! It is about creating a sense of mutual trust, respect, understanding, compassion and awareness so that we CAN have the difficult conversations where conflict and difference lie. Without this foundation we are captive to our amygdala brain response that instructs us to brawl at the site of spilled punch, shout expletives at other drivers, or flee in fear in the face of difference. Research is clear that we can create new neural pathways of response to each other. It requires awareness, intention, reflection and this requires a safe space to spill punch and try on a new way of responding to each other.

What’s your side to the story?

BY PAULA PEDERSEN * Pedersen is a UMD Faculty Fellow for Intercultural Initiatives

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