Cultural awareness workshop addresses stereotypes
By Lailani Upham
A comic illustration slide produces a discussion in cultural differences. (Lailani Upham photo)
POLSON — The Polson Heart and Soul project held a free Cultural Awareness workshop at the KwaTaqNuk Best Western Resort last month in an effort to train representatives of several segments of the community to identify “invisible” assumptions that drive perceptions of cultures.
According to Daniel Smith, Polson Heart and Soul coordinator, representatives from the Polson Police Department; Lake County Sheriff’s Department; the Coroner’s Office; Lake County Job Service; Salish Kootenai College staff members; Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal employees; Polson School District teachers and staff; Mayor Pat DeVries; Doves staff; Safe Harbor staff; Polson City Clerk officials; and a couple non-profit organizations attended the one-day class to address what the project believes is a vital need within the “agricultural-resort town situated in the heart of Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation.”
The session opened with an introduction from Dr. Brian McNeill, Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology Professor at Washington State University, and Co-Director of the Pacific Northwest Center for Mestizo and Indigenous Research and Outreach Berry Family Faculty Fellowship, who demonstrated a cultural identity exercise to provoke thinking from each person on how they individually defined their own “identity.”
Polson Police Chief Wade Nash opens up with the group during the identity exercise. Not all participants were eager to stand up and share in the beginning of the session. (Lailani Upham photo)
McNeill gave the participants a moment to jot down answers to questions: “What is your racial/ethnic/cultural background?” “How did your family define this identity? Positive/Negative messages?” And lastly, “Where did you grow up and what other ethnic group were there?”
Majority of the 30 people present stood up and gave a personal briefing of their identity and stories of where and how they grew up.
McNeill broke the ice for everyone imparting his background as European and American Mexican. He said with a Mexican mix he said he experienced a battle in identity of being Spanish or Mexican.
Dr. McNeill said the possibilities that each person represented in the room from their own diverse background had the ability to throw stereotypes out the door through understanding.
“Be strong enough to be (who you are), and also give permission to make mistakes and give others permission to make mistakes.”
The bulk of the training was a cultural simulation exercise that broke up the group in two to become their own “group culture.”
The exercise that produced underlying anxieties in facing an uncomfortable situation of not knowing a language or custom of a culture brought an authentic sense to each person of “stepping out” to learn another’s “ways.”
The flustered reactions of some did not hold back the fun and togetherness the group began to build through the exercise.
Laughs smiles and friendship launched from the face-to-face drill.
Hard laughs are heard throughout the entire cultural stimulation exercise where the group was broke off into two unusual “cultures” and then forced to interact. (Courtesy photo)
In the introduction of the training Heart and Soul coordinators introduced characteristics of a broad definition of culture, for example: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, and other characteristics. However, it was pointed out that characteristics could overlap creating multicultural individuals.
Smith stated in the introduction that culture generally refers to how “We see and interpret the world, which in turn influences how we interact with the world. This is not a White culture versus Indian culture training; it is much broader and deeper than that. Those who participate will gain increased awareness and understanding of many cultural factors and situations that affect their lives every day.”
The morning session included topics that brought understanding of each individual after sharing their own backgrounds. Some walked away with a better understanding that so many people come from so many backgrounds and experiences right in the heart of Polson.
Smith added that as humans we are tasked with organizing the world around us and in doing so it can take on many characteristics and produce stereotype assumptions.
Dr. Brian McNeill, WSU Professor at the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology conducts a ethnic identity exercise with a group of Polson professional representatives last month. (Lailani Upham photo)
“Stereotypes are just a way the mind simplifies complex data.”
He adds that the assumptions that are driven are often hidden.
“These stereotypes can be negative, positive or benign. The key to recognizing our assumptions is to begin to practice identifying what they may be. On the outside of this seemingly simple task is the fact that the majority of our assumptions are invisible to us, making this one of the hardest tasks we face, and a task that is never ending.”
McNeill said the possibilities of identifying and representing diverse cultures can steer stereotypes out the door.
Polson Chief of Police Wade Nash said the workshop fostered a safe place to produce a discussion on such a complex topic. Nash said cultural differences are a challenge many face in the area. He said it’s not common for one to take the initiative to find out. “We don’t try and educate each other.”
McNeill suggested having lunch with someone outside your circle of influence is a start to break through initial anxiety.
“It’s not a matter of disrespect. It’s a matter of not understanding,” said Nash.