Seeding Change by Digging Deep

February 18, 2019 / By: Rama Kaye Hart, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Opus College of Business)

 Last summer, I was trained as a leader for The National SEED ProjectSM (SEED). As described on the website, “The National SEED ProjectSM is a peer-led professional development program that creates conversational communities to drive personal, organizational, and societal change toward greater equity and diversity.”  SEED trains leaders so that we may return to our home institutions and continue the dialogue with our colleagues.  Since September, I have had the opportunity to work with two other trained SEED leaders, Michelle Thom, Chief Human Resource Officer, and Rachel Harris, Director of Finance and Planning, Student Affairs, to start the first SEED workshop on campus.

Our SEED workshop comprises a group of about sixteen faculty and administrative staff from across the campus. We currently meet twice a month for 90 minutes during the convo hour. The SEED workshop model uniquely focuses on two things: 1) generating learning through our own life experiences, and 2) building a shared language and understanding of how race, culture, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual identity, and other identities, have been shaped in our own lives, institutions, and society, and how we might become agents of change on an individual, group and systems level to foster equity and diversity.

What is it like being a faculty member participating in (and leading) a SEED workshop? I believe SEED works because it starts with self-awareness and by digging into the stories of how we have been socialized. The process of excavating stories is done through personal journaling, paired discussion, small group dialogue, and even arts-based inquiry. We draw from lessons found in short readings and videos provided in advance of our session, but the workshop itself is experiential and grounded in the dialogue we generate. We are the sources of our learning. We bring ourselves personally into the space and through the very different experiences that we share, we see and hear what resonates with our own experience—or conversely, we learn something about others that we have never known in our own lives. This personal sharing does three things: it builds relationships, it gives perspective and dimension to difference, and it equalizes our voices.

The principles we hope to manifest in our wider community are intentionally practiced in the workshop. For example, we use an approach to sharing and speaking called “serial testimony.” In serial testimony, whenever we share our thoughts and stories in the large group, our participation is timed. We might have two minutes or one minute to share our perspective on a topic. We go around the room and indeed, when each person’s minute is up, we have to stop. After everyone has had a chance to speak, we open up the discussion for a timed segment, perhaps five minutes, of “cross-talk.” Have you ever been in a faculty discussion and tried to time contributions? When I first experienced serial testimony in my SEED leader training, I found myself a little put off by being cut off. Though it is well-supported by research, it takes first-hand experience to realize that dominant voices, whether they are dominant because of status and power differences, or dominant because of conviction of ideas and a desire to influence, eventually do silence non-dominant members of a group, and conversely, when one has felt silenced throughout their lives, and historically throughout generations, one might feel the urge to keep talking, given the chance to do so. I can share that as an Indian woman growing up in a male-dominated family and in newly-desegregated Mississippi public schools, the latter mirrored my reality.

The practice of intentionally equalizing participation is something I have learned from SEED that I can immediately implement in my classes. Facilitating personal reflection followed by storytelling is another approach that I am using more of in my teaching. In my diversity classes, I use a “personal narrative” assignment with students, asking them to write about how they have developed their own cultural identities through family history and traditions. In organizational behavior and development classes, I ask students to think about how their unique experiences inform their understanding of the course topics, such as how they have navigated change in their lives. Students report that this reflection helps them recognize the needs of others to process organizational change in different ways and through unique cultural lenses.

Before I end, it might be important to name the elephant in the room with respect to diversity and equity education. I, as a woman of color, can, at times, (okay, frequently) feel unduly taxed with the duties of educating about race, oppression, and diversity. But SEED feels different to me. The approach to SEED is energizing, not depleting. The methods of equalizing participation, the fact that I am not asked to “teach,” but rather to be in dialogue, is refreshing. Most importantly, what I gain from SEED is an appreciation for process: the journey from self-awareness, to relationship building, to developing a shared language for change, and ultimately, enacting practices and behaviors that lead to systems change. I leave our workshops feeling that we are on a path to deepening relationship, and though the work sometimes feels difficult, we are walking the journey together, with a goal toward action. I have hope that we can bring more colleagues along on our journey, and that just maybe, we can plant and grow.*

In the next year, we plan to expand our SEED workshops on campus and offer a variety of approaches to enable participation, including a summer workshop with longer sessions over a shorter time frame and more workshops running concurrently. I hope you will look out for the call and consider joining us, either as a participant or by applying to become a SEED leader.

*all puns intended