“Maybe it’s because I’m white, but I’m feeling like ‘all lives matter,’” Tiffany told our class during a discussion of diversity. She was a student in a Stanford course I taught last spring, “Making Peace in Ourselves and in the World.”
Before the next class, Shirley, a leader of the Black Lives Matter group on campus, apologetically told me she wouldn’t be coming. “I don’t want to share my story with her,” she explained. I knew that we had a lot of work to do.
And we’re not alone. The violent events that birthed the Black Lives Matter movement ignited internal anguish and social action in many students; in others, they raised fears of division and separateness. Students across the nation have been speaking out not only on issues of racial justice but also about sexual violence, demanding that universities become more just and equitable societies. Campus administrators, faculty, and students have been struggling to figure out how to foster feelings of inclusion, reduce marginalization, and create an educational environment that feels safe and accepting for all students.
There are many ways to address these issues. My own approach has been guided by a wealth of research, including a review of more than 500 studies, suggesting that when people of different races and ethnicities get to know each other, the effect is generally positive.
I created several new courses informed by this research, also drawing on research-backed principles of mindfulness and compassion, revising a model I had originally developed for trainings with the U.S. Marines and Navy.
Did it work? By the final meeting of the class this past spring, not only had Shirley returned to our class but she and Tiffany shared an embrace. Tiffany wrote:
What happens in this class is a kind of tiny miracle. We cross borders, inside ourselves and between us and others, finding the connections that we hunger for and realize that’s what we need to keep going. We’re filled with gratitude for each other and just for being here.
How did we achieve this “tiny miracle”? Here are what I see as the key steps to creating an environment on campus where students can “cross borders” and reach a place of genuine understanding and connection. I believe these principles are relevant to any classes or other on-campus forums aimed at fostering inclusion and positive cross-group relationships; I hope instructors for other courses also consider how to incorporate some of these principles into their work.
Creating the optimal conditions to reduce prejudice
Developing an inclusive community demands first dealing with the anxiety brought on by such intimate encounters. Hannah, a white student, feels threatened that “I’ll be personally blamed for racism.” Jeff, a male, fears that “I’ll be targeted for sexism.” Tyler, an athlete, confides, “I hate it that they think we’re not as smart as they are.” Yvonne, a black student, worries that “I’ll be put on the spot every time the subject turns to race.”
While these anxieties complicate student interactions, as I mentioned above a considerable amount of research suggests that contact between people of different races and ethnicities can reduce prejudice—provided that four important conditions are in place: having the support of relevant authorities, sharing common goals, a sense of cooperation, and equal status.
For my courses, we show the support of authorities by offering them as undergraduate courses that provide 3-5 credits, getting the administration to sign off by demonstrating that they’re based on rigorous scholarly content. We establish common goals explicitly in the titles and descriptions of my courses; these include “making peace in ourselves and in the world,” “creating a space for both intrapersonal and interpersonal growth,” “heartful community building,” “transforming self and systems,” and “crossing borders of race, sex, and nation.”
To work toward those common goals, much in my courses is deliberately designed around building a sense of cooperation and equal status. While developing an inclusive community is not easy, over time I have found that fostering the four conditions, and the success of my courses as a whole, is guided by eight important principles—what I call the eight principles of “heartful community” building.
Eight principles of heartful community
1. Foster mindfulness
My courses are based in the practice of mindfulness—the non-judgmental, moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Each class begins with 15-20 minutes of mindful meditation, as not only does research suggest that it helps mitigate fears and anxieties but that it also encourages greater awareness of one’s self, of others, and of our interconnectedness. And recent studies suggest that even subtle experiences of social connectedness promote shared psychological and physiological states.
2. Honor vulnerability
A mindful approach helps students to embrace their own vulnerability and imperfection and honor the different levels of openness that each brings, knowing that being vulnerable depends on a sense of safety. Yvonne told me, “Some instructors proclaim, ‘This is a safe space,’ but just calling it safe doesn’t make it safe.” We look carefully and boldly at the curriculum and classroom dynamics for what is threatening and makes some students feel marginalized, invisible, excluded. While we make mistakes, we are open to dealing with them, accepting that it’s okay to be imperfect.
I take the lead in creating a safe space for vulnerability by presenting myself as both a teacher and learner, a guide further along the path, but one still seeking. This means that when I falter and wander, I share with them my feelings of vulnerability. I acknowledge the struggle for humility, “not knowing,” and embracing mystery over the need for mastery and certainty.
3. Model authenticity
We seek to understand the ever evolving “real me,” and present ourselves authentically, rather than performing in ways we have learned. I share my thoughts and feelings about who I am and why I am teaching the course, and ask them too to share, “Who are you and why are you here?” While fostering racial trust is not an explicitly stated goal, everyone is encouraged to bring forth an authentic self, which for students of color and others means parts of themselves that they feel are invisible elsewhere on campus and beyond.
While some faculty tell me that we should “leave ourselves at the door,” I seek to be an authentic teacher, bringing myself as a human being into the classroom. Sometimes I use performance, such as walking into the classroom dressed in a kimono, addressing the students in Japanese as a way of inducing mindfulness, showing vulnerability by acting outside norms, and modeling authenticity by revealing who I really am.
4. Practice listening
We invite others to tell us about their suffering and listen carefully, respecting the silence between words. Suspending judgment, projecting empathy and respect, helps the other to find voice and feel seen, appreciated for their contribution. When we disagree, we seek to understand how that person thinks and feels, enabling us to learn not only about their perceptions but also our own.
The skills of active listening are practiced to experience how empathy, imagination, and storytelling are ways to enter into another’s frame of mind. This way of listening can elicit and make a safe space for the kind of honest personal disclosures that promote closeness and positive feelings toward others—another research-supported way to reduce anxiety by moderating but not erasing group membership, as students recognize their peers’ individual characteristics and group identities.
5. Balance acceptance and change
We seek a balance of acceptance and change in ourselves and others. Instead of judging and trying to change ourselves and others, we provide the accepting space that paradoxically allows us to change. We confront the need to accept, and possibly even forgive, what has happened to us, struggling with the tensions of victim consciousness and agency, in addressing traumas and wounds—personal, historical, and collective.
An exercise in self-compassion enhances self-acceptance as well as understanding for others. Other exercises, using the Serenity Prayer or the Japanese saying shikata ga nai, help us balance the serenity to accept what we cannot change and the courage to change what we can, in our daily lives and in crisis. Gently and courageously, we move from thinking of ourselves as victims to recognizing our responsibility in creating solutions to the dilemmas we and others confront.
6. Cultivate compassion
Studies consistently suggest that we are more likely to feel compassionate concern for people with whom we feel a personal connection. So my class encourages ways of connecting with the concerns and suffering of others through understanding and empathy. Respecting individual differences, we position them within a broader, holistic context that emphasizes our commonalities. We acknowledge the we are all human, and also unique.
One simple exercise that we do in dyads is exploring what we have in common, inevitably leading to realizing unexpected connections. We cultivate respect in exercises such as greeting each other with the Zulu expression Sawubona, meaning “we see you.” Our storytelling approach allows us to recognize the ways in which we share common humanity, bridging communities, opening up to those outside our home, group, and nation, crossing borders of “us” and “them.”
7. Focus on gratitude and appreciation
A considerable body of research has documented the social and psychological benefits of gratitude, and we try to bring those findings into the classroom by searching for and seeing the good in ideas, people, and beliefs, and acknowledging the ways they have positively impacted our own lives.
One way we develop appreciation is through an exercise asking us to express what we appreciate about ourselves as humans rather than for our achievements. We also play a gift-giving game, expressing gratitude to others as we seek to build constructive unity between the diverse people in our group, each bringing forth and contributing their unique abilities, forsaking comparison and competition.
8. Take responsibility
By practicing mindfulness and other principles, we become more aware of and present to our fears and others’ fears, bearing witness as a way of healing and empowering. We see the spiritual path as intertwined with the path of social action, with contemplation and action parts of the same whole, each nourishing and guiding the other. Acknowledging that our well-being depends on others makes caring for others’ well-being a moral responsibility.
Through a “mindful citizen” exercise, we create a story articulating who we are as individuals who are also part of communities. This exercise helps us move beyond cynicism, complacency, and despair, instead infusing us with a sense of purpose. We embrace our gifts, resolving to do our part to promote a sense of common humanity as a means toward social justice.
When these eight conditions and principles are in place, I believe we can help students bridge their divides and replace anger and distrust with compassionate connections—just as I witnessed between Shirley and Tiffany.
Shirley returned to class after a brief hiatus, keeping a cool distance from Tiffany. But over the weeks spent together they gradually came to know each other. They practiced seeing and listening, sharing stories so different that they felt bewildered as to how they could overcome the gap. But they found that acknowledging their differences led them to discover a place of deep connection in commonalities, such as being raised by grandmothers, and even wounds, including childhood trauma, that they never imagined existed.
In assessments of these classes, students say that these small groups become “healing communities,” where we overcome victimization and claim agency. Healing occurs as we transcend an “us vs. them” mentality, crossing borders and forging connections. These communities show a way of reducing intergroup prejudice and fostering inclusion based in psychology research and pedagogical practice.
These are not the grand measures that some demand or expect. But if we want tiny miracles, they occur in coming together with vulnerability, respect, and empathy.