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Fostering “Learning Moments” Is Key To Diversity and Equity Education!

by Sue Plaster, M.Ed.

What are some ideas for developing and implementing diversity learning that are relevant and inspiring to adult learners in the workplace?

Adult learners have a wealth of prior experience and education they can choose to apply and integrate into their current learning experience. And, sometimes professional learning is uniquely timed with life transitions or personal and career changes so that our workplace learning experiences are even more significant. “Learning in adulthood is an intensely personal activity,” say Sharon Merriam and Rosemary Caffarella in Learning in Adulthood:  A Comprehensive Guide. (Jossey and Bass, San Francisco, 1999.)

In addition, diversity and equity education is often quite personal, because our conversations and dialogues strike at the heart of who we are:  our cultural heritage, what we value, what values our families taught, etc. These unique aspects of diversity education often make it both emotionally challenging and intellectually stimulating for both educator and participant.

As educators, it is important to acknowledge the personal nature of the learning and aim for as much meaningful participant engagement as possible. I call this the hope for a “learning moment,” a time when something surprising, unexpected or memorable happens that makes the education session truly transformative. In one diversity education session, I asked the participants if anyone had a cultural value they would be willing to share. One participant whose ethnic and cultural background was different from that of the group talked eagerly about a deeply shared family value of hard work, promptness and responsibility. Everyone in the room had a new connection with her, and a new sense of how much she valued her employment. Prior to that session she was seen as somewhat of a loner and an outsider.

The “learning moment” we are aiming for may have an emotional component or it may represent new information or new skills that arrive at the learner at just the right time. Generally for us as adults, the “learning moment” builds on past experience, which is what makes it more powerful, lasting, and potentially transformational.

How do we ensure that these uniquely powerful learning opportunities occur for as many of our adult learners as possible? One vital way we do this is by preparing in advance and probing as deeply as possible into the needs of the participants and their respective organizations.  What prior diversity education have they likely had, and how long ago was it? Are the participants primarily focused on workplace issues of differences and similarities, or are they concerned about serving customers across specific diversity dimensions? As with any organizational intervention, careful interviewing, questioning, and research beforehand will often provide clues as to what materials and what topics will be most relevant and therefore most welcome to the learners to build on what they know, or match what they need. It is also critical to know the basic demographics of the group, including gender, generation, ethnicity, and organizational tenure in particular, if these are known or can be estimated in advance.

Part of what makes memorable “learning moments” in diversity and equity work is creating an environment that encourages disclosure and learning from one another, not just from the instructor and the materials used — and makes it comfortable for disclosure to take place. We encourage respectful and candid dialogue by setting and holding ground rules to ensure that all participants know their diversity and life experience is recognized and honored. That means a clear “No blame, no shame” environment for learning.

I worked with a large service group having tension because some employees objected to others using their native language at work. During our in-service, we observed three employees talking together in their language during the group session. I asked if they would be willing to share with me the content of their dialogue. “Yes,” said the youngest one. “We have no word in our language for what you are talking about. The two of us were trying to piece it together to share with him.” (He gestured to his coworker.) Suddenly, everyone in the room understood something new about language use in the workplace. The ensuing dialogue was comfortable for all, even with leadership and the formerly offended coworkers present.

As educators, what can we do to foster involvement and advocacy long after the evaluations are completed? Using a “call to action” section near the end of the workshop, or action planning work in pairs or trios, can help individuals find meaningful ways to move from awareness, knowledge, and skills to involvement and advocacy.

The most important trait we bring to the learning setting is our authentic interest in diversity and equity learning and our curiosity and interest in the subject as well as the participants. I wish you many “learning moments” in which participants reach a new awareness, are exposed to a difference or similarity in a memorable way, gain or polish a skill, or experience a call to action in a fresh way!

About the Author

Sue Plaster, M.Ed. has invested more than 30 years of her career in the diversity and cross-cultural communication arena. Her consulting work focuses on assistance to small and large organizations with diversity and cultural competence, as well as succession planning that take diversity into account.  Sue also serves individual clients as a career transition and mobility advisor.  Sue’s industry experience includes health care delivery, health care manufacturing, controls manufacturing, and secondary education.   Sue holds a Master’s in Education from the University of Minnesota, with a focus in leadership development. Her undergraduate degree is in English, Speech and Education from Saint Catherine University.  Sue has been an instructor in Internal Communications for the University of St. Thomas Master’s in Business Communication and presents at numerous local and regional conferences. You can connect with Sue through Writing Assistance, Inc. at  www.writingassist.com or sales@writingassist.com

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