October 29, 2009

Creating a Welcoming Environment

Creating and Sustaining a Welcoming Environment

“Our vision is to promote a living, learning, and working environment in which our individual differences are celebrated, respected, and embraced as an essential part of our Stonehill community.” - Shared Definition of Diversity in the Strategic Plan 2011-2015

What is a “welcoming environment”? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Who is a part of this environment? Who shapes it? Who is affected by it? These are all questions that need to be explored in order to best create and sustain an environment that respects the diverse experiences within our community.

I’ve often been asked, “I’d like to make a welcoming environment; I just don’t know how”. Or, I’m sometimes challenged by people who say, “But, I do have a welcoming environment. I welcome all people.”

To the latter, my challenge back is to say, “Tell me how. Tell me what you do that makes your environment welcoming to all people.” Answers such as, “Well, anyone can come in” or “anyone can use this space” or “I never turn anyone away” often come up. But, unfortunately, those aren’t aspects that necessarily create a welcoming environment.

Now, some have not been bold enough to say it, but I imagine this conversation occurring, “Well, I don’t call anyone any racist names when they walk through the door” or “I don’t assume they don’t speak English” or “I don’t assume that students of color are here on affirmative action.” That’s great. Keep it up. But that still does not create a welcome environment.

So, what does?

I can speak from my own experiences as well as relay some of the stories from our students on campus.


1. See me. When I walk by you, do you say “hello”? When we see each other, do you shake my hand? Do you look me in the eye? Or, do you treat me like I am invisible to you? People of color on a predominantly white campus experience this incredible irony each day – we stick out like a sore thumb; yet, we are treated like we are invisible. If you want to create a welcoming environment, begin by actually recognizing that people of color exist.

2. Make a connection with me. No, I don’t mean take me out to lunch or even ask me about my family when we should be talking about business. I mean, participate in what is meaningful for me and my community. If I am a speaker somewhere on campus, come to the program. If there is a program/panel/lecture/film where you know people of color are going to be in attendance, go to the program. Get some face time. Because, if we see you there, we might make the actual assumption that you care about what is meaningful for us. Or, if you just aren’t able to attend any of the 75+ things that I host all year, then send me an email to say you wish you could go but just can’t make it.

3. Speak to me with respect. If you think I am intelligent, talk to me like I’m intelligent. Assume that I am smart, talented, and here because I worked hard to be here. See that I am capable of achieving above and beyond your own expectations of me. Please avoid talking to me in a way that you think I should stereotypically sound like.

4. Engage me in conversation. The best way to learn about me is to talk to me. Ask me if I’m comfortable sharing my history, my experiences, and my goals for the future; and, in most cases, I will respond positively. If you are genuinely curious about me, I am more likely to share my story with you and connect with you.

5. Understand that I might be outside my comfort zone. For our students of color who were raised in their cultural majority, they say one of the reasons they chose Stonehill is the opportunity to be in the minority. They also say that one of the biggest challenges is to be in the minority for 4 years. For our first generation college students, they might not possess the same familiarity with college lingo, procedures, and processes that their college legacy peers do. So, create an environment that allows them to experience this newness with ease.

6. Show non-judgmental sensitivity. “Unlike other students here, I don’t have the same economic privilege.” For students who are major financial contributors to their own education or to their family, they are not as easily able to accept unpaid internships, volunteer work, or opportunities that do not help support their financial situation. Some have avoided this conversation with professionals because they do not want to have to admit their situations publicly. Showing non-judgmental sensitivity, combined with problem solving to help them achieve their goals, is important to creating a trustful relationship with you.

7. Find where they are most comfortable, and go there. Many people in marginalized groups have found their “comfort spot”. Rather than wonder why they are not coming to you, go to them. Ask to attend a meeting of a group you are interested in connecting with on a more meaningful basis. Look for where they hang out, eat, do homework, meet, and find a way to non-invasively engage in discussion.

8. Hear me. Know that it's hard for me to come to you with a complaint or a suggestion. Too many people have said that people of color "play the race card", so in an effort to NOT do that, I most likely will say nothing. But, if I know that you will hear me without making judgments about me based on my identity, I am more likely to trust you and what you do.

9. Recognize that I experience this world as a person of color. I don't want you to "judge me by my skin", but I do want you to recognize that other people sometimes do. And, I've spent a lot of years working to prove that I am MORE than just skin color. However, my skin color does "tint" (pun totally intended!) how I experience the world.

1. Provide opportunities for me to see myself reflected in what you do. Do you include people of color on panels that you host? Do you bring in guest speakers that have diverse backgrounds? Do you implement a component of cultural awareness and education into your courses, lectures, or discussions? A great way to create an environment that welcomes all people is to include all people.

2. Build your base of contacts who are from diverse backgrounds. The truth is, good mentors are good mentors for all. And yet, students of color often look for mentors of color because there is information that is shared about their backgrounds that is relevant and important to their experiences. One black, male student shared “I never go to certain programs because I know they aren’t going to say anything relevant about me and my experiences.” To create a welcoming environment, individuals need to see that your initiatives include their voices, too.

3. Add culturally relevant visual representation to your office or space. This is not permission to now go and buy up all the Malcolm X, Vincent Chin, and George Lopez posters online. However, it might mean adding a multicultural calendar to your space or an “Ally” sticker to your door (if you are one). It means subscribing to diverse publications, magazines, or resources that can be placed in your waiting room or in your office (and, hopefully, you will have read those, too!).

4. If you are not seeing a particular group using your services or participating in your programs, ask them why. It’s not enough to just blame them for not being interested or apathetic. People may be actively choosing not to go to you or use your services for particular reasons. First, assess your data. What are the ratios in relation to the population? What is your baseline? What is your goal? What informs that goal? Then, as the group what they would like to see and/or what they need.

5. Know that it takes time. Building relationships and trust take time. If you haven’t been actively working on creating a culture of inclusion (as opposed to just saying “sure, I’m welcoming!”), then the work has just started. It can take months, sometimes years, to see progress. But, if you give up, that word spreads fast, too. Stick with your initiatives and, if your goals and steps are right, you’ll see progress soon enough!