GSE Faculty Work to Build Inclusive Societies

October 23, 2017

Jorge Arabia migrated to the United States in 2011 from Ecuador. He was eager to learn the culture and the language but found that to be very difficult given that his family spoke only Spanish. In his quest to practice English, one of his friends introduced him to the Conversation Café – a program created by Rutgers GSE and The Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service to help Rutgers students make connections with the local community. The program gives local community members the opportunity to practice English and other languages in a casual and relaxed environment.

The Conversation Café provided Arabia the opportunity to not only strengthen his English, but also to build a community of friends and to advocate for the LGBTQ community as well. Four years later, Arabia is now a facilitator at the Conversation Café as an AmeriCorps Fellow.

”As a facilitator, I give people the opportunity to express themselves and to prepare for important conversations with potential employers, their bosses, and their children’s teachers,” stated Arabia. “Unlike ESL classes which focus on grammar and the rules of English, Conversation Café helps people practice how to use English in everyday life.”

The Conversation Café is a key component of The Conversation Tree: Community-Based Language Partnerships Program. This program is empowering for both community members and Rutgers students according to Mary Curran, Director of Local-Global Partnerships at the GSE. “One of the goals of the program is to develop the intercultural competence of Rutgers students,” stated Curran. “We want them to have the skills to sympathetically interact with those for whom English is a new language. For example, they give enough time for others to express themselves, provide positive feedback, and create a comfortable environment for conversations.”

“In our Conversation Cafés we are working to build inclusive societies. It is an inviting space where students and community members can not only practice English, Mandarin, and Spanish, but participating also opens new social networks and breaks stereotypes on both sides of the groups that are interacting,” said Curran. “The Conversation Cafe provides a forum to bridge communities and build relationships between groups who are learning from each other.” Research conducted by Curran with GSE Professor of Practice Christelle Palpacuer-Lee and GSE Ph.D. student Jessie Curtis demonstrates that some people have reported that through their participation they come to feel like family.

One of the challenges to building inclusive societies according to GSE Associate Professor, Ariana Mangual Figueroa, can be identifying those populations that are an integral part of our society yet remain largely invisible in the everyday practices of our institutions. For example, the important 1982 Supreme Court ruling Plyler v. Doe ruled that K-12 public schools must provide an education to all students regardless of their or their parents’ migratory status. In turn, states have mandated that districts not inquire into their students’ immigrant status. This important protective mandate has created a double blind for educators: the undeniably important responsibility for serving all students, coupled with minimal resources for meeting the needs of immigrant and immigrant-heritage students whose life realities they know little about.

“When so much important educational research has shown that educators can best create inclusive schools when they draw on students’ experiences and strengths, how can we create inclusive classrooms if we know little, if anything, about their social realities?” asks Mangual Figueroa. “In this moment of deep political polarization, coupled with policies and practices aimed at demarcating who belongs within our society, schools are sites where racialization and exclusion can be reproduced or resisted.”

Mangual Figueroa was recently awarded a grant by the W.T. Grant and Spencer Foundations along with three other university researchers and the Southern Poverty Law Center to survey teachers nationally in order to determine how immigration policies impact educational practices - in contexts that range from more inclusive to more exclusive. The national survey will be coupled with six school district case studies with the goal of documenting programs that exemplify school and community-wide efforts that foster inclusion.

GSE Associate Professor Ebelia Hernandez is also exploring how to build inclusive environments at the university level. She conducted a study on the Latino college student experience, which was eye opening. She has come to admire the resilience of these students who continue to work towards a degree while facing tremendously difficult life circumstances such as being able to afford a college education.

“The study debunked the notion of a free wielding happy-go-lucky college student life. That is not reality,” stated Hernandez. “Students are given the choice to sink or swim when faced with adversity and if educators understood the tremendous strain that they are under, their internal strength and resilience which keeps them going, they would see their students in a different light.”

As many Latino students are commuter students, they have a hard time finding a community to belong to. Some find networks to connect to while others don’t.

“For many Latino college students, their families are their support system. They are the reason that they go to school – so that they can ultimately support their families,” stated Hernandez. “Their families give them strength and the resilience that they need in order to complete their college education. Thus, if we are working to create inclusive college campuses, then it is imperative that we make our colleges a welcoming environment for the families of students and create opportunities for them to participate in their children’s education.”

In an effort to build inclusive societies, Associate Professor, Caroline Clauss-Ehlers has chaired the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Task Force on Re-envisioning the Multicultural Guidelines for the 21st Century.  The Task Force is made up of 5 members from higher education institutions across the country. An overall goal of the Multicultural Guidelines is to present aspirational guidelines so that helping professionals can strive to work with students, clients, organizations, and research participants from a multicultural perspective.

One of the goals of this approach, which has recently been approved by the APA, is to help practitioners become aware of the complexity and intersectionality of their student’s experience. “We want practitioners, educators, consultants, and researchers to be aware of how multiple identities can interact and influence an individual’s experience,” said Clauss-Ehlers.

“Having a multicultural perspective is important as we all have cultural backgrounds. It is critical to understand the cultural context if we are going to be able to comprehend the issues that our students face and how their cultural context influences their experiences,” stated Clauss-Ehlers. “This is essential in our work to build more inclusive school communities.”

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