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Expanding Cultural Diversity Approaching 25 Years

January 14, 2013


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MACOMB, IL -- Nearly 25 years ago, J. Q. Adams arrived on the Western Illinois University campus to teach in the educational foundation department (now the Department of Educational and Interdisciplinary Studies). Shortly after joining WIU's faculty, Adams embarked on a mission to establish more cultural diversity initiatives. A quarter of a century later, Adams' original efforts have grown and expanded to numerous programs not only on campus, but also throughout the state.

Very shortly after his arrival on campus in 1988, Adams began working with James Niss, the director of Faculty Development (now the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Research), as a multicultural education associate to develop new projects and initiatives. Among the earliest were a series of lectures and workshops led by prominent multicultural education scholars and a grant proposal for a new program developed by the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) called the Higher Education Cooperation Act (HECA). The IBHE proposal, "Expanding Cultural Diversity in the Curriculum and in the Classroom," was accepted and WIU was awarded HECA grants annually for 10 years. English Professor Janice Welsch took on the role as co-director of the grant in 1991 following Niss' retirement.

"The cultural diversity among students, as well as faculty and staff in higher education was changing, as was the nation at large, and called for greater understanding of diverse cultural traditions, values and perspectives to ensure successful communication and interaction among all of Western's constituents," Welsch explained. "The IBHE understood this, as did the WIU campus community, which led to the grant. After 10 years, the IBHE continued to support the Expanding Cultural Diversity Project (ECDP) by transferring $50,000 to Western's annual general budget. This demonstrated the state's recognition of just how important this project was, and its confidence in WIU to carry it forward."

According to Welsch, the goals for the Expanding Cultural Diversity Project have evolved over time, with greater emphasis put on social justice perspectives as WIU's faculty and staff became more familiar with multicultural concepts, but they consistently stressed awareness and understanding of cultural diversity and its relevance within every classroom, office and residence hall on campus. Adams added that to accomplish these goals the ECDP has offered a variety of programs and other assistance that deepen understanding of different cultures and cultural values, promote effective communication across cultures and suggest ways to implement cultural diversity initiatives within each person's spheres of influence.

"Helping faculty integrate cultural information and insights into their curriculum and classroom practices has been a primary objective since such knowledge has become increasingly important to students," Adams noted.

Dealing with Difference Institute

The most visible of the programs the ECDP has developed is the Dealing with Difference Institute (DWDI), Welsch said. Though the length and format of the DWDI has changed over its 20-year existence, its focus has always been on cultural diversity and its significance in education. Within this broad focus, the institute has revolved around various themes, among them race/ethnicity (with separate institutes on African, Arab and Middle Eastern, Asian, Latino and Native Americans), gender, class, sexual orientation, disability, privilege, identity development, educational philosophy, media, intercultural communication, interactive learning, the uses and abuses of fear, nonviolent social action and multiculturalism vs. assimilation.

Throughout the years, DWDI speakers have included national and international, as well as local and regional, scholars and activists. Among the most widely recognized are African American International Grand Master of Chess Maurice Ashley, who uses chess to help at-risk youth; Sut Jhally, founder and executive director of the Educational Media Foundation; Peggy McIntosh, author of one of the very earliest articles on white privilege; Jack Shaheen, author of "Reel Bad Arabs," an analysis of the representation of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood films; Garry Shirts, creator of BaFa BaFa, an interactive game that simulates the challenges of intercultural communication; Christine Sleeter, co-author of "Teaching with Vision and Critical Multiculturalism: Theory and Praxis"; and Beverly Daniel Tatum, psychology professor and current president of Spellman College.

The keynote speaker for the 2013 DWDI, which will be held May 14-15, will be James A. Banks, the "Father of Multicultural Education" and distinguished professor and director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington, Seattle. In 1989, Banks was the first major nationally known scholar and advocate of diversity education to lead a workshop at Western.

Speaker Series

In addition to the DWDI, to provide ongoing opportunities for the WIU community, the ECDP sponsors presentations and workshops by leaders in social justice and equity education who come from a variety of disciplines throughout the academic year. Welsch said that since 2005, many of these educators have not only given presentations or facilitated workshops on WIU's Macomb and Quad Cities campuses, but have also agreed to have their presentations recorded and made available to WIU personnel via University Libraries and the Multicultural Resource Center.

In addition, in cooperation with University Television, Adams has conducted interviews with numerous cultural diversity scholars such as Shakti Butler, director of "Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible"; cultural critic Henry Giroux, author of more than 50 books, including "Disposable Youth, Racialized Memories, and the Culture of Cruelty"; and The Rev. C. T. Vivian, Civil Rights Movement leader and proponent of nonviolent social engagement.

During the Fall 2012 semester, the ECDP collaborated with WIU History Professor Peter Cole to bring Rozell "Prexy" Nesbitt to campus to meet with students in several classes and to discuss "Footsoldiering for Peace: From Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela and Samora Machel."

In Spring 2013, Janice Mandell and several graduates of her theatre program will conduct an all-day workshop Saturday, April 20 in the Quad Cities on Augusto Boal's use of creative interpretations of texts, including newspaper items, book chapters and visual images to spark interest, introduce new perspectives and deepen understanding of equity, diversity and social justice.

Publications and Productions

"In retrospect, what appears to be a remarkably ambitious aspect of the ECDP during the first eight years of funding was the publication of eight anthologies," Adams said. "These anthologies included essays and syllabi from multiple disciplines authored by Western faculty and educators from across the nation."

Grant funding also made possible the production of such media projects as the CD, "Multicultural Prism: Diversity in the Curriculum;" videotapes, "Multicultural Prism: Voices from the Field" and "A Pedagogy of Place: Little Singer Community School, Navajo Nation;" and a set of four DVDs, "Effective Strategies for Learning and Teaching about Diversity in the U.S.A," that comprised a course taught by Adams.


Difficult Conversations

The most recent program initiated by the ECDP is "Difficult Conversations," an annual series of informal discussions to foster conversations about cultural diversity as it is experienced on Western's campus. The program began in September 2011, coordinated by Debra Miretzky of educational and interdisciplinary studies.

"This program has provided faculty, staff and students with opportunities to talk about some of the issues that often inhibit interaction and cooperation among colleagues and peers unfamiliar with each other's values and perspectives," Welsch explained. "Since small group discussions are the heart of the 'Difficult Conversations,' participants are expected to take an active part in each conversation."

The topics for the Spring 2013 "DifCon" series are differing perceptions of privilege and power, and pressures to identify as "male" or "female" in a world of more complex gender categories.

Multicultural Resource and Advising Center

The publications and other media produced through the ECDP are available through the Multicultural Resource and Advising Center, as are a wide variety of books, videos and DVDs that faculty and staff can use to deepen their own understanding of diversity, cultural competence and social justice or use in their work with students.

"The ECDP provided the impetus that led to the development of the multicultural requirement in General Education, the Group Diversity course as a core course within a multicultural curriculum, issue-specific diversity workshops for individual departments and offices and the Cultural Diversity Cadre," Adams said. "That the ECDP was created and continues to exist reflects the support of WIU administrators, faculty and staff, their recognition of its value and their commitment to the 'justice, equity and diversity' WIU has identified as part of its mission."

For more information on the Expanding Cultural Diversity Project, visit wiu.edu/ecdp, or contact Adams at JQ-Adams@wiu.edu or Welsch at JR-Welsch@wiu.edu.



Posted By: WIU News (U-Relations@wiu.edu)
Office of University Relations