REPRESENT! forum at The Mount highlights need for more diversity in everyday life

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LENOX — Nationally acclaimed spoken word poet and educator Donovan Livingston recently headlined a local venue, The Mount, not to perform, but to lead a discussion called "REPRESENT!: Why Representation in Education & the Media Matters."

Joining him for the discussion were local leaders Eden-Renee Hayes, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and dean of equity and inclusion at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, and Pittsfield-based literacy advocate and author Ty Allan Jackson.

More than 50 people, including area educators, attended the free, public event Sept. 20, sponsored, in part, by the state's humanities council, Mass Humanities.

During a phone conversation with The Eagle on Tuesday, Livingston reflected on the event and the audience members he met.

"I think there's a healthy curiosity out there about how to seek out diversity in their lives when there may not be diversity around them," he said.

Which is why, with urgency, the presenters emphasized the need for society to have access to, in books, films and classrooms, a balanced range of thoughtful characters and leaders representing the range of races, ages, abilities and experiences of people who might see and hear and be influenced by them.

"It is so necessary for people to be able to see themselves depicted. We have to see these things before we become these things," Jackson said.

The author said his books, while intentionally featuring protagonists of color, are not exclusively for readers of color. Instead, he said, the motivation behind his children's books are to show young people that superheroes and entrepreneurs can come from any background.

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For context, Hayes briefly discussed the legacy of what's known as "the doll test," conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark between the 1930s and the 1950s, in the era of the school integration debate leading to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The result of the survey of attitudes of white children and black children toward dolls with lighter skin tones versus darker skin tones found that the majority of all children ascribed negative perceptions and attitudes toward the black dolls, indicating that African-American children had developed a sense that their own race stood inferior to their white peers.

While not a primary piece of evidence in Brown v. Board, it certainly made a tangible impression in U.S. history, and prefaces more modern methods of understanding biases, like the Implicit Association Test.

Hayes said today the idea still stands that if people are not exposed to a diverse range of people, sources of information and experiences, "we're not aware [unconscious bias] is happening."

So, how do people change?

"Your resource is yourself," said Hayes, suggesting that people have to take up the cause and actively seek diverse materials, whether it's films, books or for lesson plans. She said teachers, for example, can use less-traditional names in word problems, like John and Jane, and integrate names traditional to other cultures.

Livingston, who works at the predominantly white Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said that ensuring that people have spaces on campuses or in workplaces where they can feel like they can talk about issues relevant to race or gender without repercussions or judgment is helpful. He also said that while the panel consisted of all African-American, educated, cisgender people, the representation of people in the LGBTQ, disabled and religious communities merits a similar amount of consideration and action.

"For me, what I would offer teachers is to continue taking pedagogical risks," Livingston said. "While [teachers] may have course standards to prepare students for, it's about making sure they're teaching practices grounded in the lived and cultural experiences of their students. ... Sometimes, these are things you might not get in that professional development day."

For Jackson, it's just about meeting people and respecting their differences.

"Your resources are your neighbors," he said. "If you see me, please see my color and love me anyway, and I will do the same."


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