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~by Michael Wilcox
Assistant Director and Program Leader for Community Development / Purdue Extension
Associate Director / North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (NCRCRD)
~ Ginger Evenson, Artist and Social Activist
Many years ago, I found myself in the crosshairs of my supervisor. It is a long, funny, and touching story about falling in love, learning to adapt to a new culture, and accepting that distance actually just might make the heart grow fonder.
All of this was lost on my supervisor, as he found out that my partner and I were breaking one of the fundamental rules related to our positions. And he found out only because my partner wrote a letter that was read on a variety show that was transmitted globally on BBC World Service. In that letter, she asked that the radio presenter play “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain & Tennille. Why? “Because my boyfriend hates that song.”
While my dislike for the song may still hold true, the song’s title resonates with me on a much deeper level today. Here’s why….
Purdue Extension’s Community Development Signature Program, Navigating Difference, presents a wide range of concepts related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. One of the concepts presented early in the program is the Diversity Wheel. Pioneered by Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener in 1990 and adapted many times since (including for the workplace by Gardenswartz and Rowe – the version used in Navigating Difference), the model generally incorporates individual elements such as personality and internal attributes (age, race, gender, etc.), external attributes (religion, socioeconomic status, education, etc.) and organizational attributes (work-related) while taking into account the era or global environment within which all of the other elements operate.
These dimensions of diversity frame who you are and how others perceive you. These dimensions can affect a myriad of outcomes during the course of your life, both directly and indirectly. They may also affect how you personally influence outcomes for others.
During Navigating Difference, we explore a continuum included in Chappelle and Bigman’s book “Diversity in Action” (1998), which introduces the concepts of preference, bias, prejudice, discrimination, and oppression. This model describes the different levels of the continuum (with preference on one end and oppression on the other) and how one level may eventually lead to another.
As members of a community, we all have preferences. Often, our preferences are mundane, “I prefer basketball over football” is one potential example. And generally, our individual preferences can be aggregated across our community, potentially leading to some commonalities that could be construed as a prevailing culture, perhaps in a rural Midwest community with many residents that enjoy American roots music.
However, preferences can become embedded and lead to a situation where our preferences override the consideration of equally worthy options, thus diminishing our objectivity. This opens the door to bias, where preferences are ranked and mindsets switch from liking one thing (a positive) to actively disliking another (a negative).
Once the switch from positive to negative takes place, prejudice, discrimination, and oppression may follow. We have seen this play out throughout history and all over the world. As you think of examples of this regression, you will note that the perpetrator invoked an element of the Diversity Wheel. In some cases, this element is race. When race is invoked, this leads to discrimination and oppression recast as racism and institutional (systemic) racism.
Like many, I have spent the last few years trying to understand our country’s past, present, and future while relying on different perspectives. In November and December of 2021, I discussed aspects of my own journey. One person that has played a central role is my friend and confidant, Ginger (whom I discussed in the December article).
On May 14, 2022, my world was shattered from afar. Back in my home state, a hate-driven terrorist act.
Ginger was the first to write.
“I’m still reeling from the atrocity in Buffalo.”
“We have to wake up, find our empathy, and exercise our compassion. If we don’t? It is going to be a long dark road.”
And, as I described in those articles, I started to read.
John McWhorter, the linguist and New York Times columnist, wrote an article immediately after the atrocity in Buffalo, “‘Racism’ Has Too Many Definitions. We Need Another Term.” I read and re-read it. I then read “The Double Terror of Being Black in America “by Professor Ibram X. Kendi. Two thought leaders coming at this issue from different perspectives.
I shared these articles with Ginger, and she, per usual, brought clarity for me. She responded:
“If McWhorter really is calling out Kendi, I guess I’d say, “Good. Let’s have more of that.” We need to “poke holes” in our well-established paradigms. We need multiple perspectives. There is room for more than one view, especially when we are tackling the ubiquitous parasite we call racism.
I agree with much of what John McWhorter says about our society’s understanding of the nomenclature. We, in the U.S., use the term “racism” to label any negative outcome for people of color, particularly for Black people. If you recall, I wanted to start our exchange with an exploration of many terms related to racism. This is why.
The atrocity in Buffalo is considered to be racism because the shooter is White, and he intentionally targeted Black souls. While there is no denying that the event was racially motivated, we have become somewhat lazy in categorizing it. It’s convenient to call this racism. I would call it racial terrorism. You could call it genocide, too. It would be more plausible to invoke the term “racism” if we were to consider all racially motivated mass shootings in the aggregate.
Let me slow it down.
There are layers, like an onion, to the obstacles and injustices suffered by people of color in the U.S.; we have:
As McWhorter suggests, we, as a society are confused, leading many to throw a vast range of scenarios under one umbrella term. He even suggests that using one term to describe the least of our woes as well as the most egregious of tragedies has opened us up to overblown reactions to minor slights.
Where he and I part ways is in appreciation of the terminology already in use. I think the problem is that there has been huge resistance in our White society to learn about racism and bigotry. He thinks there aren’t adequate terms to describe it all. Either way, the result is the same; we are abusing the terms and missing the nuance. As he put it, we wouldn’t draw upon the horror of Buffalo to make a case for, say, police reform or fair housing. Calling racial violence by individuals and systemic racial injustices racism is reductive. It implies that there is one wide-sweeping, unreachable solution to fix it all rather than targeted and appropriate rectifications for each racial issue.”
Ginger’s layered onion example triggered the continuum model in my head. Suppose the regressive continuum model takes one down the dark spiral that leads to horrific outcomes. Might there be a model that reverses the spiral and leads one towards a continuum of progressively positive outcomes?
I started with empathy.
If you read my previous columns, this comes as no surprise. Empathy has starred in at least nine articles.
However, empathy is not the answer. Research at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that while important, empathy doesn’t directly lead to the positive outcomes we seek. Moreover, the efficacy of empathy is limited because it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Empathy allows you to feel how another feels, but it is inadequate to make you act. Strauss, et. al. (2016) offer an academic definition that compassion is:
“a cognitive, affective, and behavioral process consisting of the following five elements that refer to both self and other-compassion:
1) Recognizing suffering;
2) Understanding the universality of suffering in human experience;
3) Feeling empathy for the person suffering and connecting with the distress (emotional resonance);
4) Tolerating uncomfortable feelings aroused in response to the suffering person (e.g. distress, anger, fear) so remaining open to and accepting of the person suffering; and
5) Motivation to act/acting to alleviate suffering.”
If we consider empathy the midpoint of the continuum and that compassion leads to action, how do we arrive at empathy, and what is the desired endpoint after acts of compassion?
I am not a clinical psychologist! But, as an Extension professional, I think it starts with self-respect leading to mindfulness.
The American Psychological Association defines self-respect as “a feeling of self-worth and self-esteem, especially a proper regard for one’s values, character, and dignity.” Like preferences, this is an individual quality that can, in some sense, carry over into the community. A foundation of self-respect can lead to mindfulness and vice versa. It can also lead to greater personal well-being. From a community perspective, this personal well-being could translate into community well-being or, as we community development folks call it, quality of life. Furthermore, Bishop, et. al. (2004) define mindfulness as “a process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of nonelaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiosity, experiential openness, and acceptance.” This orientation of curiosity, experiential openness, and acceptance should lead to empathy.
For Extension professionals, the challenge is finding ways to promote self-respect, mindfulness, empathy, and compassion in individuals and communities. By thoughtfully considering these outcomes when developing our programming and finding ways to effectively partner with our Extension colleagues so we can support a holistic approach, the Cooperative Extension system will foster quality of life for everyone inclusively and equitably.
If this process starts with self-respect and ultimately leads to compassion, how will we know when we have reached the ultimate goal of this positive continuum?
I think that goal is love.
bell hooks published the book “All About Love” in 2001, the same year as another horrific act of hate and terrorism. In the book, she explores the concept of love and all of its dimensions. She starts with a definition:
“The word “love” is most often defined as a noun, yet all the most astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb.”
This struck a cord in me as I remembered my recent study abroad experience. I wrote, “while empathy opens the door to understanding people’s needs, one must consider action-oriented solutions. Or, as Kathleen put it, “you must think of needs as verbs, not nouns.” By doing so, you free yourself from conventional thinking and begin to operate in design thinking mode — an approach to problem-solving that prioritizes needs.”
Thinking of love as a verb activates it for us and sets the stage for acts of genuine love, which bell hooks describes as a “combination of care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility, and respect.” Genuine love requires that we are aware of ourselves AND others.
In a sense, this new, positive continuum begins with self-love. It ends with a loving environment where communities nurture genuine love and promote what author Nathaniel Branden called “living consciously,” which is related to mindfulness. hooks adds, “Loving friendships provide us with a space to experience the joy of community in a relationship where we learn to process all our issues, to cope with differences and conflict while staying connected.” As Extension professionals, we need to work towards this at the community level. This can be extremely difficult as one needs to consider the elements of genuine Love along with the processes of forgiveness and reconciliation undergirded by kindness, communication, and the healing power of service.
I introduced the “Love Will Keep Us Together” mantra in the context of romantic love. It is not my intention to conflate the platonic love of your fellow community members with the love of your partner. Instead, my introduction is a reminder that romantic love is tangible evidence of our capacity to love. This capacity ensures some level of feasibility for us to journey through the positive continuum that ultimately leads to love, versus the negative continuum, which leads to very much the opposite.
M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled (1978), “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
What will you choose?