Creating a Welcoming Environment

Creating and Sustaining a Welcoming Environment
So, this is a more work-related type of post, but I thought it was important to put up on To Loosen. Since many folks are struggling with the idea of “creating a welcoming environment”, I thought some To Loosen readers might find it interesting. Cross posted at Intercultural Happenings.

What is a “welcoming environment”? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Who is a part of this environment? Who shapes it? Who is affected by it? These are all questions that need to be explored in order to best create and sustain an environment that respects the diverse experiences within our community.

I’ve often been asked, “I’d like to make a welcoming environment; I just don’t know how”. Or, I’m sometimes challenged by people who say, “But, I do have a welcoming environment. I welcome all people.”

To the latter, my challenge back is to say, “Tell me how. Tell me what you do that makes your environment welcoming to all people.” Answers such as, “Well, anyone can come in” or “anyone can use this space” or “I never turn anyone away” often come up. But, unfortunately, those aren’t aspects that necessarily create a welcoming environment.

Now, some have not been bold enough to say it, but I imagine this conversation occurring, “Well, I don’t call anyone any racist names when they walk through the door” or “I don’t assume they don’t speak English” or “I don’t assume that students of color are here on affirmative action.” That’s great. Keep it up. But that still does not create a welcome environment.

So, what does?

I can speak from my own experiences as well as relay some of the stories from our students on campus.


1. See me. When I walk by you, do you say “hello”? When we see each other, do you shake my hand? Do you look me in the eye? Or, do you treat me like I am invisible to you? People of color on a predominantly white campus experience this incredible irony each day – we stick out like a sore thumb; yet, we are treated like we are invisible. If you want to create a welcoming environment, begin by actually recognizing that people of color exist.

2. Make a connection with me. No, I don’t mean take me out to lunch or even ask me about my family when we should be talking about business. I mean, participate in what is meaningful for me and my community. If I am a speaker somewhere on campus, come to the program. If there is a program/panel/lecture/film where you know people of color are going to be in attendance, go to the program. Get some face time. Because, if we see you there, we might make the actual assumption that you care about what is meaningful for us. Or, if you just aren’t able to attend any of the 75+ things that I host all year, then send me an email to say you wish you could go but just can’t make it.

3. Speak to me with respect. If you think I am intelligent, talk to me like I’m intelligent. Assume that I am smart, talented, and here because I worked hard to be here. See that I am capable of achieving above and beyond your own expectations of me. Please avoid talking to me in a way that you think I should stereotypically sound like.

4. Engage me in conversation. The best way to learn about me is to talk to me. Ask me if I’m comfortable sharing my history, my experiences, and my goals for the future; and, in most cases, I will respond positively. If you are genuinely curious about me, I am more likely to share my story with you and connect with you.

5. Understand that I might be outside my comfort zone. For our students of color who were raised in their cultural majority, they say one of the reasons they chose Stonehill is the opportunity to be in the minority. They also say that one of the biggest challenges is to be in the minority for 4 years. For our first generation college students, they might not possess the same familiarity with college lingo, procedures, and processes that their college legacy peers do. So, create an environment that allows them to experience this newness with ease.

6. Show non-judgmental sensitivity. “Unlike other students here, I don’t have the same economic privilege.” For students who are major financial contributors to their own education or to their family, they are not as easily able to accept unpaid internships, volunteer work, or opportunities that do not help support their financial situation. Some have avoided this conversation with professionals because they do not want to have to admit their situations publicly. Showing non-judgmental sensitivity, combined with problem solving to help them achieve their goals, is important to creating a trustful relationship with you.

7. Find where they are most comfortable, and go there. Many people in marginalized groups have found their “comfort spot”. Rather than wonder why they are not coming to you, go to them. Ask to attend a meeting of a group you are interested in connecting with on a more meaningful basis. Look for where they hang out, eat, do homework, meet, and find a way to non-invasively engage in discussion.

8. Hear me. Know that it’s hard for me to come to you with a complaint or a suggestion. Too many people have said that people of color “play the race card”, so in an effort to NOT do that, I most likely will say nothing. But, if I know that you will hear me without making judgments about me based on my identity, I am more likely to trust you and what you do.

9. Recognize that I experience this world as a person of color. I don’t want you to “judge me by my skin”, but I do want you to recognize that other people sometimes do. And, I’ve spent a lot of years working to prove that I am MORE than just skin color. However, my skin color does “tint” (pun totally intended!) how I experience the world.

1. Provide opportunities for me to see myself reflected in what you do. Do you include people of color on panels that you host? Do you bring in guest speakers that have diverse backgrounds? Do you implement a component of cultural awareness and education into your courses, lectures, or discussions? A great way to create an environment that welcomes all people is to include all people.

2. Build your base of contacts who are from diverse backgrounds. The truth is, good mentors are good mentors for all. And yet, students of color often look for mentors of color because there is information that is shared about their backgrounds that is relevant and important to their experiences. One black, male student shared “I never go to certain programs because I know they aren’t going to say anything relevant about me and my experiences.” To create a welcoming environment, individuals need to see that your initiatives include their voices, too.

3. Add culturally relevant visual representation to your office or space. This is not permission to now go and buy up all the Malcolm X, Vincent Chin, and George Lopez posters online. However, it might mean adding a multicultural calendar to your space or an “Ally” sticker to your door (if you are one). It means subscribing to diverse publications, magazines, or resources that can be placed in your waiting room or in your office (and, hopefully, you will have read those, too!).

4. If you are not seeing a particular group using your services or participating in your programs, ask them why. It’s not enough to just blame them for not being interested or apathetic. People may be actively choosing not to go to you or use your services for particular reasons. First, assess your data. What are the ratios in relation to the population? What is your baseline? What is your goal? What informs that goal? Then, as the group what they would like to see and/or what they need.

5. Know that it takes time. Building relationships and trust take time. If you haven’t been actively working on creating a culture of inclusion (as opposed to just saying “sure, I’m welcoming!”), then the work has just started. It can take months, sometimes years, to see progress. But, if you give up, that word spreads fast, too. Stick with your initiatives and, if your goals and steps are right, you’ll see progress soon enough!


imagesMy name is never pronounced correctly. In fact, I’m more surprised when someone does say it correctly. If I meet someone who might be in their 50’s, I usually correct them with, “It’s Liza, with a Z.” Otherwise, I’m usually stuck with however they pronounce it.

Now, my last name always gets messed up, too. TAloosen. TaluSAAAN. Taulsin. Talulusan. It’s never done right. (hence the spelling of my blog name “To Loosen” which is how my last name is pronounced).

I actually don’t think my name is all that difficult. To me, it sounds completely un-Asian. It doesn’t even sound of a particular racial/ethnic group.

It wasn’t until I gave birth to my daughter and named her a somewhat unique name – Joli – that I insisted on pronouncing names correctly. With the popularity of Angelina Jolie (whom she was NOT named after), you’d think people would get her name right. Nope. She’s called “Julie”, “Jolene”, and even “Julia.” I insist on correcting people when they mispronounce her name. After all, I GAVE her that name and it’s spelling and pronunciation has meaning to me. Once I became outspoken about her name, I found myself correcting people when they mispronounced my own name. I found my voice.

So, this latest incident really ticked me off when I read about it. In short, it’s about a businessman who bought a hotel and insisted that everyone Anglocize their names. As the staff was  made up of many Latinos, Martin (Mar-TEEN) was told to become Martin (MAR-tin). Marcos became Mark.

The article in-and-of itself is totally crazy. But, what gets me is the post-article “Poll” that MSNBC created that gives you these options:


YES, if employers deem it necessary for communication with customers.

NO, such a rule discriminates against immigrants and foreign workers.

WTF? “discriminates against immigrants and foreign workers?” What about “discriminates against anyone who isn’t named John, Mark, Luke, or Paul? ” Last time I checked, names aren’t solely tied to immigrants and foreign workers. There are plenty of Americans who have names that get jacked up all the time. Heck, my name (and my daughter’s name) only has TWO syllables, and that gets butchered to no end!

Why is MSNBC equating “names” with “immigrants and foreign workers”? People are named after their grandparents, friends, and hybrids of other people’s names. I quite possibly found the poll more disturbing than the article, if that’s possible!

I make it a point to pronounce people’s names correctly. I make a point to ask how they would like me to say it, too. I’m married to a “Jorge” who doesn’t roll the “R” in the middle of his name. To his family, he is Jorge (“George”). To our friends and his co-workers, he is Jorge (HOR-hay).

I find that people have trouble figuring out some Chinese names (most notably, the ones that start with “X”) and instead resort to just calling them by their last names (which tend to be shorter). Or, out of frustration, a few of my friends have simply made up another name to have people call them. So, JongSu becomes “James”.

Want to work for social justice? Learn people’s names. Learn how they want to be called. And, when they tell you, accept it. Don’t try to change it unless they ask you to change it. And, work through assumptions that any “ethnic” name must be something foreign.

What’s So Hard About Teaching Truth?

Wow, sometimes post topics just fall into my lap — or, fall into my Facebook, to be more accurate. Seriously, what did we all socially write about before people’s Facebook comments, status updates, and links?

Picture 2This one comes courtesy of a simple comment about “Columbus” (this being, ya know, Columbus’s big DAY and all….)

A friend status-ed about loving Columbus. So, I bit, and commented that I hope my friend loves the day off and not actually what Columbus did.  That led to the response that the teacher does teach a socially responsible unit on Columbus (yay!! Give it up for one more teacher who teaches the truth!). Another person then asked what Columbus did. I, unable to resist, simply stated that “Columbus gets credit for discovering a place that already had people, language, culture, traditions, etc. That would be like me walking into your apartment, saying that I founded it, and then making you go get me a drink.”

A response came along — the kind you hope for when you’re in a blogging rut — with something like this: “Yeah, but how much violent-invading history are we really gonna teach 3rd graders, or their parents, who want everything to be sugary and nice?” I actually agreed here because I thought the commenter was heading in the “yes, and therefore we shouldn’t teach Columbus=Discoverer”. But, alas, the commenter wasn’t making that point. The commenter then proceeded to say that the “(n)ative (p)eople in Plimouth were rude and off-putting with their political agendas worn like a giant chip on their shoulders.” I swear, I can’t make this stuff up….

Giant.Chip. On.Their.Shoulders? Yeah, there sure is a chip; and that chip is called “we were having a grand old time, then random people came, stole our land, killed our people, and then told stories about how we shared some turkey, jokes, and smiles.” I’d be rude, too, if kids dressed up like my people, athletic teams mock my elders, and people took tours of my land every November to see a rock.

But, really, my question goes back to this statement: “How much violent-invading history are we going to teach 3rd graders?” Right, exactly. So, let’s not teach it. If you don’t want to teach the true history of the First People, then at least let’s not teach Columbus=Savior. Okay, if you don’t want to teach the atrocities of the Pilgrim/Native times, at least let’s stop teaching that the Pilgrims saved the Native people.

You can teach the truth in age appropriate ways. After all, those populations and peoples are/were MORE than the events that happened to them. Picture 3Teach the cultures as they existed before colonization. Do work beyond what is given in just the most basic (and empty) of textbooks. If you teach 3rd grade, then make sure you do your own age appropriate (adult) homework. Pick up Howard Zinn’s book. Read Ronald Takaki’s work. If you teach, read James Loewen. Challenge the education that we received growing up. Teach that Columbus didn’t end up where he thought he was, and that’s why he landed where he did, calling Native people “Indians.” (Heck, I’m pissed that the nickname my sister gave me when I was 7 years old has still stuck with me; Imagine being stuck with the same nickname for, oh, 500+years!) Teach that Europeans did not discover the world; that people existed long before colonization; that colonization, itself, relates to a lot of the playground antics that exist outside during elementary school recess.

So, what’s so hard about teaching the truth? These days, teaching the truth takes some effort. While many textbooks are finally telling stories other than just European history, many still do not. And, for most teachers in my generation and older, we grew up on a very different telling of history. We were educated during  a time when social perspective was rarely challenged. But, today, now, there is an emphasis on teaching the truth. And, indeed, as most historical truths are a result of “violent-invading-forces”, we need to teach that there exists different truths. Don’t we always tell our kids there are “always two sides to every story?” Playground rules, right?

Teaching the truth also teaches our children to think critically. They learn that there is a perspective other than their own. They learn to think bigger than a situation. They learn to seek the truth rather than just accept the truth. By learning both/all sides, they learn to engage in conflict resolution and mediation.

My kids are little. At least few times a day, they grab from one another, they tease one another, they take credit (or blame) from one another. They trick one another into doing their chores. If someone gets a treat, a sibling will almost predictably try to distract then steal a piece of that treat. And, at least once a week, one of my girls will kick the other girl out of their shared room. Sound historically familiar?

We end up having talks about these actions. And, I know they won’t end anytime soon (after all, puberty and teenage years are still a bit away…). The lessons learned don’t involve violence. Rather, we talk about respect. We talk about fairness. Justice. Equality. Kindness. Why can’t these truths be taught in terms of history?

They can.

They should.

They must.

So, let’s realize that teaching the truth is possible. Let’s realize that we can teach a sugary version of the truth that is also historically responsible. Let’s realize that the “chip-on-the-shoulder” is usually a result of the truth being withheld. If people were spreading lies about you, about your friends, about your family, you would be pretty pissed off, too. When you hear that a people/person is pissed off about something that historically has been misrepresented about them, ask why. Listen to the answer, and you likely will be listening to their truth.

(hat tip to my friend Jenn who teaches with this book to help her students understand the different stories surrounding Columbus)

What are some age appropriate specific resources that other anti-racist parents and/or responsible educators are using in their homes or classrooms? Please share! Make teaching the truth a whole lot easier!

Peace and Hope

Writing off the cuff here, so it may not be as eloquent as I hoped. But, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be able to write and reflect upon the announcement today that President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

As most readers can imagine, I am a huge fan of President Obama. Fan. Admirer. Follower. Supporter. You name it, I’m there. I’ve written before that I never really cared too much about politics prior to this election and the events leading up to it. President Obama (then, Candidate Obama) and the movement made me care. For the first time in my life. I saw a change. And, yes, it was and is a change I can believe in.

I’ll never forget the image, just after Mr. Obama was named the Democratic candidate, of a young boy who was dressed up for Halloween, with a name tag that said, “President.” His little name tag didn’t say “President Obama”, in homage of imitation. It didn’t say “Future President” or “I wanna be President”, it simply read “President.” Years ago, that little boy would have gathered responses like “Oh, how cute” or “Dream big, little guy.” I certainly would have thought those. But, now, I see that photo and say, “Yes, Mr. President.” I have no doubt that doors have been opened for this little boy. I don’t just mean in opportunity, I mean in his renewed self esteem; in his promise that one day he, too, can be President; and in the security that he will be able to stand on the shoulders of those who came before him.

When I first heard that President Obama was reaching out to the Muslim world to make peace, I thought, truly, there was no one else who could have done this in a genuine manner. For, because of his family, his heritage, and his history, outreach was coming from a place of love and respect. In the beginning of his campaign and through the election, President Obama seemed to be going on a World Tour, visiting many countries where people came out to offer support and encouragement. Have we seen that in many other leaders these days?

President Obama’s speeches, his inspiration, his call to action for his fellow Americans, and in him, the promise of a brighter tomorrow, brings peace. Not in the traditional sense of solving or ending a political war, but rather a peace to people.

I agree with the critics who have said, “He hasn’t done enough to earn the Nobel Peace Prize.” And, as much as it pains me to say this, in a traditional sense, it is true. But, for me, President Obama represents all that is not traditional. Our country, its people, its policies, and its programs have existed in ways that have not worked. And, I have respect for someone who believes that doing the same thing, getting nowhere, and still doing the same thing expecting different results is getting old. it’s refreshing to hear a President who speaks honestly. Who intelligently speaks and responds from a place of care.

In the past few months, there have been times where I reacted with “Dang, he shouldn’t have said that!” From Cambridge police to Kanye West, President Obama has spoken candidly. People reacted with “that’s not very Presidential!”, yet, my reaction is “how refreshing!”

Nobel Peace Prize? I know. Given those who have received it in the past, I’m not sure I would have put President Obama in the same category. I also wonder if the global community sees his impact differently than we might see it. Does the larger world believe that “If Americans can vote for a Black president, they must be getting somewhere?” Do they place great emphasis on his outreach to the larger global world where previous presidents looked to dominate other countries? Or, did they choose him because he has the greatest global recognition right now?

Simply sitting and writing just hours after the announcement, I’m still attempting to digest it all. I feel conflicted — so happy and proud for President Obama, and yet I find myself questioning whether it was awarded too early. I know there will be great things that come out of President Obama’s impact. Peace and hope. That’s what I know he has brought to my family.

Teaching About Those in Need

A few Sundays a month, my family and I drive into the Boston area for some dim sum. Even though we live in one of the largest cities in our state, we rarely encounter homeless people and/or families in our immediate area. Yet, whenever we drive into the city, there are two places where we are sure to see someone — often the same people — on the street asking for some assistance.

Because we have to drive into the city frequently (doctor’s appointments, mostly), my children have grown up with these familiar faces. Though, the closest they have really come to them is through our car window.

In my younger years living in the lower east side of New York City, I worked with a young man named Peter who was very active in advocacy work for the homeless in lower Manhattan. As you might imagine, homelessness is a huge issue in New York City. My co-worker not only volunteered in homeless shelters, he was frequently found sitting next to people just talking over a cups of coffee he had purchased for the two (or more) of them. Peter worked in social policy change to gain rights for the homeless. He focused on both the large scale systemic issues as well as the more intimate and personal issues.

I had the opportunity to talk with Peter about the best ways to help those who are homeless. I shared that I often wrestled with the practice of just “dropping coins in a cup” versus buying food and/or giving a blanket or a coat to someone in need. Peter told me that the best use of my money was in the homeless shelters, and the best things I could do for a person were a) treat the person as a person, and not just as a poor person; b) purchase a meal; and c) share a meal. Peter’s words stuck with me.

A few years later, my sister told me about a friend she had met in her PhD program in California. This woman was single, but had recently been divorced and relocated to California from Georgia. As my sister and this woman grew closer, the woman disclosed that she had lived on the streets for a few months. My sister, her classmate in a prestigious PhD program, was shocked. Across from her was a brilliant musician, a promising academic scholar, and a put-together woman. She had a hard time believing this woman had been homeless. Because, as with many of us who have not had to experience homelessness, she thought that the a homeless person was  “dirty, down-and-out, alcoholics or drug users, products of bad decisions, unmotivated, etc….”. Homeless people were not supposed to be PhD students, right?

My sister’s friend went on to tell her story. She had been happily married. She participated in neighborhood block parties where people raved about her macaroni and cheese. She was a musician who practiced hours a day. Over the course of her marriage, she noticed changes in her husband. He began to disappear for long periods of time. She had not been very interested in their shared bank account but began to take notice when checks were coming back with insufficient funds. Before she knew it, her husband had gambled away their savings, was thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt, and then, he was gone. She had nothing left. There was not enough money to go anywhere, so she packed up a few things and began to sleep in the car. She would move the car every so often, but eventually realized that moving the car took gas — and she didn’t have money to fill the tank.

My sister’s friend resorted to asking for help on the streets. While money was helpful, she would tell us, she really needed food. She needed water. She needed warmth, safety, and security. As an attractive woman on the streets, her environment was rarely safe, and she lived for months in constant fear.

Meeting her and hearing her story completely changed my views of “who is homeless.” Especially in our recent economy, homelessness has many different faces. Different ages, different races, different family structures. The local hotel near our house is now full — not from tourists, but rather with families who have lost their homes. Friends who are college graduates are unemployed and living on public assistance; the very assistance they once proudly and ignorantly criticized as “for people who are too lazy to work.” They now have changed views as to who needs public assistance.

Yesterday, my daughter lost her tooth. And, under the pillow, she received a small sum of money. Her request was to go to the store and pick out a gift. After she had paid for her gift, she got her change and put it in her pocket. After dinner, my daughter turned to me and said, “Mommy, I have extra money here. Can we give it to the man-with-no-home next time we go to the city?” When I was her age, the heavy clicking sound of the lock button would ring in my dad’s car whenever we approached a person on the corner. I was taught to be afraid. I was taught to look away. I was taught to ignore the stranger who needed assistance.

I am so glad that my child refuses to learn the lessons of my past. Rather, she looks for people in need and calls me to action.

“Mom, it’s starting to get colder. Can you remember to put the box of granola bars in our car tomorrow? I don’t want to forget to give it to anyone who is hungry,” she said as she was getting ready for bed. “Oh, and maybe some blankets, warm things, and some towels.”

She gets it. She gets that life is bigger than our own. She understands that people have needs greater than ours. She knows that she has a responsibility to care for her fellow people on this planet. She is not afraid to look; she is not afraid to feel; she is not afraid to care.

I truly think that having a physical disability has been a gift to our family. My daughter knew, from a very early age, what it felt like to have people stare at her. She has also experienced something worse — the feeling of people treating her like she’s invisible because they aren’t sure what to make of her. Because my children have met people who look very different from the mainstream norm, they gravitate towards people who don’t quite fit in. They are learning how to genuinely acknowledge that people are people; and that we must treat people above the labels we give them.

As we come upon the most ironic of seasons — the Season of Giving and the “Season of Excessive Spending”, what gifts will you give your children? What gifts will last beyond batteries and attention spans? What ways have you examined the lessons you were taught, and the lessons you will choose to pass on to your own children?

POST SCRIPT: Please check out this beautifully written entry with connections to the responsibility we have as Christians in the aide of the homeless.

OKAY, ANOTHER POST SCRIPT: I’m so appalled. In my desperate search to find some poignant pictures of people who are homeless, I found far too many photos of people making fun of the homeless. Seriously, we live in a twisted world…