On Thursday and Saturday, the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, The Office of the Provost, the Campus Activities Board (CAB), the Office of Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement (IME) and the law school diversity committee co-sponsored a listening forum led by facilitators Lee Mun Wah and John Lenssen of StirFry Seminars & Consulting.
A spread of wraps, potato chips and cookies was provided from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m., and the forum ran from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. On Thursday, it was held in the Agnes Flanagan Chapel and on Saturday it was held in the Legal Research Center on the law campus.
Attendees were given the tools to learn how to conduct mindful interventions, practice mindful listening and responding, open up or close down conversations, respond empathetically, re-frame perceptions and build community.
Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Janet Steverson said, “I was disappointed that the Saturday facilitator focused primarily on challenges relating to race, ethnicity and gender rather than the spectrum of diversity which encompasses sexual orientation, gender identity, ability and religion, among other characteristics.”
Lee, the facilitator on Saturday, sees himself as a jack-of-all-trades. He is a Chinese American diversity trainer, filmmaker, poet, author, educator and therapist. Throughout the event, he made known his distaste for impersonal panel discussions conducted by only a few speakers and attended by multitudes of passive listeners. He prefers all participants to be active.
The activities he conducted were intimate. The faculty, staff and students in attendance were told to partner up with someone ‘different’ than them who they did not already know. For the remainder of the forum, this would be the person that they would speak and listen to.
“I think when people see how beautiful a connection they can make today is, they realize that at any given moment, they can make community,” Lee said. “At any given moment, we can get to know someone different than us. All we have to do is get up. All we have to do is turn around.”
Lee said, “70 percent of white people don’t have a person of color as a good friend, an intimate friend. And of the 30 percent who do have a person of color as an intimate friend, many of them haven’t talked about racism… it’s a dialogue waiting to happen.”
In the first exercise, participants were guided to “check out” the other person and make preliminary judgements about them based on their clothes, adornments, skin, body type, shape of facial features, hair and demeanor. Then, each person was meant to tell their partner those judgements honestly. These directions were noticeably uncomfortable for the attendees; some avoided eye contact or fidgeted with their clothing.
“We did a partner listening exercise, it was with someone I’ve never met before, which was kind of scary but really cool. It felt like we were really able to listen to each other,” said Maya Litauer Chan ’19. “A lot of these skills are really useful in classes, but also in clubs, and even just talking with your friends and people that you have relationships with. It’s a good thing.”
In following activities, partners took turns being the listener and the speaker, telling the more profound details of their life and answering questions such as “what do people miss when they see you?” and “how do you feel about the way people treat you?” Some participants shared tears with their partner – a complete stranger up until this event.
Participants began to open up more and more with their partners.
“I can tell people are longing to talk to each other. I think we often don’t do that, we lecture… I think we have so much feeling inside of us now every single day because of this president,” said Lee.
Between activities, Lee told stories and anecdotes of his incredible encounters with people. By telling a riveting story of a student of his who had held a gun to his head and threatened to kill Lee, he explained how to de-escalate situations with acrimonious and potentially dangerous people simply by asking them questions that he refers to as “The Art of Mindful Inquiry” and trying to understand that person’s feelings.
Some of these questions include “What hurt or angered you about what happened?” and “How does it affect you now?” Lee and his associates at StirFry Seminars and Consulting believe that asking the right questions and truly listening to a person with a different (and perhaps contrary) worldview are the best ways to build bridges between people and frameworks of thought. Lee noted how “anger is a result of unrecognized hurt,” implying that if we as a society can work towards understanding the pain people feel, the violence will decline.
StirFry is celebrated for having one of the best cross-cultural communication training programs for educational settings and workplaces, as well as government and social service agencies. The company has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Phillippe Matthews Show and Blog Spot Radio, among others.
Steverson said, “I think that LC will benefit by having a significant segment of its members equipped to mindfully listen and communicate with those from whom they differ in terms of their identify and/or ideology. I hope that these members will feel better equipped to, and will engage in, productive conversations across these differences.” Steverson also hopes that the community members who attended will pass on what they learned from the seminar to their peers.
Relating his seminar to the current sociopolitical climate in the U.S. today, Lee said, “Perhaps the greatest question for this country is: do we want to hear the truth? And if we do look at the truth… what are we willing to change?”
“When I’m discouraged, not feeling hopeful for us, wondering ‘oh my God, what’s it going to take,’” Lee said he recalls what a woman said to him at the Women’s march to give him hope: “They came to bury us, but they forgot that we were seeds.”