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Austin community leaders learn, practice inclusion

There's a song in the musical "South Pacific" that confronts the realities of racism.

The lyrics to "You Have to be Carefully Taught" were written to explain prejudice to two mixed-race children on the island of Bali.

From them, the kids learned that prejudice, hatred and suspicion are handed down from generation to generation. Because of that, teaching toward the removal of such prejudice seems to be a never-ending process.

Nearly 70 years later, the process continues in Austin, in the form of an eight-week session for local leaders. In it, they were "carefully taught" how to be inclusive.

Leadership in Ethnically Diverse Communities, sponsored by the Blandin Foundation and the Hormel Foundation , focused on cultural competency and working with leaders of various ethnic groups.


"What we talk about is a vision for an 'intentionally inclusive community,'" said Julie Steiff, one of the trainers. "It doesn't happen automatically, and it doesn't happen unless you practice it,"

Thursday was the final class, where participants used their new-found knowledge to create projects with two criteria:

Contribute to the vision of an inclusive community, and build inclusion in the community.

The projects are designed to build intercultural confidence, Steiff said.

"We can't do projects until we have the confidence to build relationships across ethnic differences," she said. "We didn't even get to the diversity part until we created relationships, because stereotyping people works against being intentionally inclusive."

A relationship changes everything, she said, "because once you know someone, they aren't a mystery anymore, or scary anymore."

Homework during the two months included a scavenger hunt to encourage teamwork and inclusion, as well as an assignment to "do something fun together."

Ten years ago, Steiff said, a similar program in Austin drew 10-15 people, "all white. Today, there's about 100 people here — most of them non-white," she said. "It takes that long, and that much intentional work. Austin has been patient and persistent, and now (people in the minority) feel like they belong here."


Thursday's group included the nearly 50 class members, who were each invited to bring a guest.

"Austin turned out in such a big way that we had a waiting list," said Valerie Shangreaux, director of the Blandin Leadership programs. "It's obviously a community that's very passionate about this, in stepping up and saying, we want to be a welcoming community."

But it's not over, she cautioned.

"In any community grappling with diversity, work has been done that needs to be recognized and celebrated," Shangreaux said, "but there's always more to do."

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