MLA 2019: The Greatest Job on Earth

The Massachusetts Library Association’s annual conference theme this year is “the greatest job on earth.” And I guess we can claim that, because a quick internet search shows there’s not a lot of consensus on the issue. Moving on!

The keynote speaker was Dr. Deborah L. Plummer, Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity Officer at UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial and author; her presentation was called “Radical Respect in Troubling Times,” and it was followed by a “Communicating Across Differences Workshop.” Plummer spoke about how to turn “Us and Them into We” through conversation – and not just conversation with the people you already agree with. It’s easy to respect people who look / think / talk / behave / worship / vote like you; it takes work to get out of your echo chamber. But bumping up against difference is how we learn about others and about our own identities. 

The paradox of diversity, said Plummer, is that (1) we are unique and like no one else (personality); (2) we’re each like some other people (similar backgrounds, views, genes, etc.); (3) we’re all like everyone else (i.e., human). And we don’t each have one identity; we have multiple and intersecting identities. We may emphasize or project one or another of these depending who we’re with. “Identity pulling” is okay if you’re the one choosing to do it, but it’s not okay for one person to do it for someone else.

Plummer gave the attendees strategies for successful “bumping”: (1) Focus on being respectful rather than being right; (2) Check your assumptions, and de-escalate if necessary by saying something like “I’m sorry, I made an assumption”; (3) Mirror the other person’s style by “grabbing their handle” – figure out if they are coming from the head, the heart, or the gut/soul; (4) “Take a helicopter ride” and observe from a distance if the other person doesn’t have the capacity to change their viewpoint or behavior.

Plummer also listed her three components of radical respect:

  1. Admiration: “Wouldn’t it be great if we treated differences like a challenge instead of a threat?” (We have different physiological responses to these: we react to a challenge with adrenalin, and to a threat with cortisol.)
  2. Civility: Listen for understanding, rather than for rebuttal
  3. Dignity: Honor that needs and concerns exist. Where do they come from?

one vase or two facesThere was a break after the keynote, and then the next set of morning sessions. I chose to stay with Plummer for the “Communicating Across Differences Workshop,” which included some of the same material as her keynote with additional exercises and examples, starting with a few of the classic Psych 101 images to demonstrate our ability to make perceptual shifts. You can’t actually hold multiple realities or perspectives at once, but you can shift back and forth between them – and if you don’t see another reality on your own, sometimes you can once someone points it out to you. (Ah, see what she did there? Clever.)

In this session, Plummer spoke about the traditional approach to difference compared to the contemporary one, and used an analogy of an hourglass: If the sand in the top is the dominant culture (white, male, Christian, healthy and able-bodied, adult, heterosexual, upper-class, educated), those on top are afraid of simply flipping the hourglass; “we have a better chance for creating equity if we tip the hourglass on its side.”

Communicating successfully across differences is tricky; Plummer’s “Intention vs. Impact” slide shows how a sender’s intended message might impact a receiver. If the impact is positive, we have effective communication; if it’s negative, we need to acknowledge and clarify. Intent and impact are both important; one of Plummer’s examples was a Black Lives Matter display. Some people thought it was an anti-police message, which wasn’t exactly the sender’s intended meaning (it was more like, Black Lives Matter too).

intention vs impact flow chart slide

Following this slide was one with a number of conversational “bounce backs,” ways to recover and things to say when a conversation goes wrong, such as “Help me to understand…” and “My experience has been…” Everyone will make mistakes, and these can help move the conversation forward if done with a degree of cultural humility and commitment to learning.

diversity petalNext was a “diversity petal” exercise: we identified the dominant or “up” identities for race, gender, age, mental/physical ability, sexual orientation, class, education, and religion and then our own identities within each category, then placed a check mark next to any category where our own identity matched the dominant one. Plummer pointed out that marginalized people know more about the dominant culture; part of privilege is not having to learn about how life is for others. “Black people know a lot more about white people than white people know about Black people. Women know a lot more about men than men know about women. People who have a disability know a lot more about the world that’s designed for people who are healthy and able.”

We came back to the “multiple realities” images to hammer home the point that just because you don’t see (or experience) something doesn’t mean that it isn’t there (or doesn’t exist). Plummer is a champion of cross-racial friendships (Some Of My Friends Are…), and pointed out how going through life with people who are different than you can highlight the ways in which you experience the world differently (or ways in which the world treats you differently).

All of this is ongoing; no one has “arrived,” but we can commit to continuing the conversation.

To Be Continued (more sessions from Monday, and sessions – and a presentation library website usability testing – on Wednesday)

 

 

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