Change the World, One Conversation At a Time

By Razia Kosi, LCSW-C

Today is World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development as established by the United Nations. It seems simple, and yet can be so complex.  Do we really understand each of the various cultural groups that we belong to, and the preconceptions we have of the groups of which we are not a part?  Do we believe we are engaging in a dialogue but then slip into a debate when we are faced with differences of ideas, beliefs, or values?  We strive towards finding commonalities, but sometimes the true connection and resulting growth occurs from learning to appreciate what is gained by valuing our differences.

The necessary mindset for engaging in a dialogue would be “seeking to understand”: slowing the conversation down to understand a person’s story, perspective, or beliefs.  This is not listening only to find factors to protest, and only responding or reacting if you do.  It may mean you don’t reach an agreement, but you do work towards understanding a different perspective, or why another’s experiences cause them to believe or feel a contrasting opinion to your own.  There’s a tee shirt with the quote, “It’s hard to hate someone once you know their story.”  By sitting down and listening to understand, you have created a relationship.  This relationship can have a powerful impact.

I went to Colonial Williamsburg last fall.  Well, we went to Busch Gardens, the Virginia amusement park a few minutes from Williamsburg, and while we were there, we decided to do the educational thing with the kids and visit Colonial Williamsburg.  Colonial Williamsburg gets its name from the fact that it was a historic town completely restored to the way it was in the 1700s.  People interested in preserving history reenact characters, both real hutand fictionalized, that existed or would have existed during that time frame.  This includes people of African descent playing characters who were enslaved at the time. I felt some anxiety about this, as I was not sure what to expect.  The first stop in Colonial Williamsburg was a plantation, where both slaves and slave owners were depicted by the actors.  My family listened to a man depicting a slave, who was not playing a specific character but instead served as a host and introduction to the town.  We moved on to a small, one-room house, where we met a woman who was costumed but not playing a character.  She explained what her life would have been like had she been the person she was dressed as: a slave for a poorer family.  She then opened it up for questions from the spectators.

Taking this opportunity, I asked her how long she had been doing this work and what some of the most interesting experiences she had were.  She had been doing been working at Williamsburg in various roles for about twenty-five years and loved telling the history and making it come alive for people.  She said she specifically liked the role of not playing a character, so she was more capable of answering questions.  She then related a story of how one conversation with a man had changed a course of his life.  Fifteen years prior, she was playing the character of an enslaved woman and was sharing how difficult life was when a white man from another state started to challenge her. After the crowd dispersed, he stayed around and said that he came from a long line of proud Ku Klux Klan members, and that he believed in segregation and white superiority.

worldThe woman told us that it was a defining moment for her.  She called upon her faith as a Christian to stay in the conversation and asked God to help guide her. The women continued to listen to him, and share her perspectives and beliefs that were different.  They talked for a few hours and then he left with his family.  One year later, as the woman was working at a different section of Colonial Williamsburg, the same man again approached her.  He thanked her for what she said and that it changed his life.  The conversation he had with her made it difficult for him to continue to hate those who he used to hate.  He thought about her and how despite his own negative and hateful words she stayed and listened.  As a result, he had left the Ku Klux Klan and even started to speak out to others in the Klan to leave the world of hate.  As the conversation drew to a close, he asked if he could hug her.  She agreed.  Afterwards, the man said that that was the first time he had ever touched a person of a different skin tone than him.

In listening to hear story I had chills. I also felt great admiration for what she did and honestly questioned if I could have done the same. I talk about responding with inner peace, with faith, and with compassion when faced with rage or anger, but when faced with outright hate, it’s hard to do.  I remember that at the start of her story, she asked me if we were believers in Jesus Christ, and the resentment I had felt because of it.  She had asked because her faith was the foundation of why she responded as she did to the man. I felt the sense of disconnect because we had a different belief, and I stayed to listen to her story because I wanted to understand why it was so important to her. She may have had the perception that if I had the same religious beliefs as her, I would be better able to understand her story. I feel that I was able to understand to a better degree how her faith guided her to continue talking with a man who professed hate, because of my own experiences with hate. In that moment I was able to listen, and build a relationship in a few minutes that would influence my thinking in the months to come.

We can make a grand plan to go to another country, learn a new language, or immerse ourselves in a new and different culture, which are all fantastic ways to value cultural diversity and engage in a dialogue. As I found out, we can also take the time to engage in a conversation with those around us; we never know how one conversation in which we seek to understand might have a life-changing effect.

The 2013  UN campaign “ Do One Thing for Diversity and Inclusion” is encouraging people and organizations from around the world to take concrete action to support diversity, aims:do one thing

  • To raise awareness worldwide about the importance of intercultural dialogue, diversity and inclusion.
  • To build a world community of individuals committed to support diversity with real and every day-life gestures.
  • To combat polarization and stereotypes to improve understanding and cooperation among people from different cultures.

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