Becoming Open to Cultural Consciousness Conversations

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Jennifer Abe, Ph.D., Interim Special Assistant to the President for Intercultural Affairs

Dear Friends:

A group of about 20 faculty, staff, and administrators sat in a circle in the Jesuit library in early December, sharing memories of what holidays were like for them as they were growing up. It wasn’t just about family festivities, but also about family absences and challenges. There were stories of sacred rituals, such as rocking baby Jesus, and cultural rituals, such as preparing seven kinds of fish dishes; and the sharing of yearnings about what we each want and need during the upcoming winter break. Renewal and regeneration. Gratitude. Openness to the possibility of creating new rituals with our loved ones. A desire to cherish. A yearning for solitude. For direction. All our collective, highly particular desiring poured into a rare space of deep listening and caring.

This sharing of stories has become a monthly ritual as part of Cultural Consciousness Conversations, a pilot project sponsored and initiated by the Office of Intercultural Affairs. What would it mean for members of the campus community to commit to an intergroup dialogue for an entire year? Would anyone be willing to participate given so many other tugs on their time and attention? And would a diverse group of individuals from all over campus — representing multiple roles and varied life experiences — be able to open up to an invitation to be vulnerable and authentically themselves for the sake of engaging others toward meaningful understanding across differences?

Twenty-eight people said “yes” and participated in an all-day Saturday retreat at the beginning of the academic year to start off this conversation. The retreat and workshops are co-designed and co-facilitated by Henry Ward (EIS), Csilla Samay (OISS), Shaun Anderson (CFA), and myself. About 20-25 people show up for each monthly conversation: at the Laband Art Gallery to see the exhibit “Finding Heart (Tìm Tim)” by Antonius-Tín Bui and to discuss issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity; at the Jesuit library to explore cultural values, spirituality, and family rituals around the holidays.

What has emerged is something both expected and unexpected. What was expected is that the discussions are not necessarily easy and will probably not get any easier. What was unexpected is how much people are willing to share if a real space is created. And we are creating this space together. With each other. We are committed to dialogue and contact; to developing understanding, not seeking agreement; to seeing our own humanity and those of others in the context of our differences, not by erasing or minimizing these differences. It is imperfect, of course. It is a bit tentative. A bit messy. And totally amazing.

Cultural humility and respect: It starts with openness. A willingness to learn. A desire to engage. May the winter holiday season invite you to find what you most need and seek. May you find renewal and joy both in solitude and in the company of loved ones. And may you discover a renewed well (and will) within you to be able to offer to others, gifts of presence, openness, and hospitality.

In the spirit of the season,

Jennifer Abe, Ph.D.
Interim Special Assistant to the President for Intercultural Affairs

See the 2019-20 Cultural Consciousness Conversations pilot cohort here.

Applications to join the 2020-21 cohort will open in March.

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