As many people have pointed out in the #SAFailsForward initiative, we need to reframe our concept of failure. It’s OK to fail. Truly. It’s through failing that we learn, grow, and develop. Yet, the fear of failure continues to hold people back. One area in which I see this consistently is the lack of engagement with diversity and cultural competency education – because people fear that they have or will “fail” in these conversations.
Working in multicultural affairs, I see time and time again a hesitancy to engage in the dialogue because people are too afraid of doing and/or saying the “wrong” things. I often hear “I don’t know what to say” or “I don’t want to make a mistake.” It’s OK to make mistakes! It’s OK to “fail.” It’s actually part of the process. We all make mistakes – I know I do! We all sometimes do and say the wrong things, even diversity and social justice educators. We are in the profession of education because at our core, we are life-long learners and we value learning. So, we shouldn’t hide, duck, ignore, or brush off these opportunities to learn. We need to take RISKS and ENGAGE in the conversation because to not engage in diversity and cultural competency education is not an option. If we are afraid to fail, we will keep failing forever.
For those who are afraid to fail in this area:
1) Have confidence in your ability to engage in cultural conversations. Identity and culture play a critical role in the work that we do with students. We all have intersecting identities – so let’s talk about them! Speak from your experience and tell your truths and be willing to listen, understand, and learn from the experiences of others. What’s there to be afraid of? You can’t fail at BEING YOU.
2) It’s a process – give yourself, and others, grace. I meant it when I said that failure is part of the process, and the process is all that matters. There aren’t any “right” outcomes or answers. So know that we are all learning together and committed to supporting each other through this journey.
3) Cultural competency doesn’t just build overnight. You don’t get competent by just attending one training so continue to engage in on-going opportunities. Your competency, confidence, and capacity will continue to build up over time.
And a couple thoughts for my fellow diversity and social justice educators that encounter this issue:
1) Part of the reason why people are afraid to say or do the “wrong” thing is because some people approach this work by policing others and letting them know what they just said or did was offensive without explaining why. If you approach this work from an elitist or expert model, it will shut people down and make them not want to even engage in the conversation. This work is not about policing people’s actions or words; instead, it’s about getting people to understand the issues and how they can be a part of the change.
2) Invite everyone to the conversation. Sometimes we don’t know who our allies will be or sometimes we’ve already made up our minds on who is or isn’t an ally. Don’t assume and pre-judge people – risk asking. You never know. Your invite can go a long way in making those who might hesitate out of fear of failing feel included and valued in the conversation.
3) Engage with all students about issues of diversity. As Gwen Dungy said at the NASPA Multicultural Institute, “we are failing our students, all of our students, if we are just letting students of Color hide out in multicultural affairs offices.” Lee Mun Wah also emphasizes that we are failing our White students when we only focus our efforts on our students of Color without educating all students about issues of diversity and social justice. Everyone should have the opportunity to build their cultural competency.
4) Continue to share with others moments where you have “failed.” Part of the beauty of #SAFailsForward is to show that we all at some point have “failed” and it’s how we bounce back and learn from that experience that matters. This is especially true in diversity education work. It puts people at ease if you are willing to be vulnerable too and share moments where you’ve said or done the wrong things and how you responded to those situations.
People might say it’s uncomfortable to talk about issues like racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. on campus. Well, I say, it’s more uncomfortable to live with it and have it go unaddressed. We must keep moving forward in the areas of social justice. We must keep failing forward – don’t let the fear of failure paralyze us. Who’s in?
Connect with me and share your thoughts @jessikachi