The Nerve of Lee Mun Wah: Communication and Inclusive Leadership

Last week I had the absolute pleasure of attending the 2013 NASPA Multicultural Institute in Las Vegas Nevada. It was an absolute blast (and I don’t even gamble)! The opportunity to connect with colleagues in the field and develop a national network of friends is always a plus, as is a few days to hear about the ways in which said colleagues are mining through existing bodies of research in higher education and student affairs and applying the literature to the work they do.

There are also buffets and that makes me smile!

But the one thing I appreciated most about this conference was the insight I received from renowned scholar and diversity trainer, Lee Mun Wah, whose seminar on developing multicultural communities through inclusive leadership was the best professional therapy I’ve ever experienced. There was also a screening of his newest documentary If These Halls Could Talk, which was so good that I am happy, ne, proud to shamelessly plug.

Wah’s seminar touched upon the multifarious topic of diversity and multicultural community through an approach that would baffle many, so I ask that you sit tight as you read and process this very outrageous approach. You see, Lee Mun Wah suggests that we can build multicultural community by starting with a focus on inclusion, and that a focus on inclusion starts with a very audacious premise. A daring idea that shocked my system harder than the copious amounts of prime rib I engulfed over the weekend.

Lee Mun Wah… wants us…. to talk… to people (in person, not on facebook or twitter).

To quote pop culture icon Monica Geller, I KNOW!

Wah provided a few thoughts that gave insight into this idea. He told us that “even the most routine interaction is an opportunity to build community;” that “you’re only one question away from having a relationship with someone;” and “we have to learn what to do with emotions instead of going straight to solution mode.”  

In other words, Lee Mun Wah had the nerve to suggest we sit down and actually engage in conversation (rather than just talking about the importance of conversation). And you know what, Lee Mun Wah is right.

And thus I must take a backward approach to this blog.

My traditional approach to blogs, discussions, research, lectures, etc on all things multicultural (in this case, multiracial) is to encourage people to process difficult topics (mixing of identities, leadership development, eliminating microaggressions, etc.) and then engage in discussion on their thoughts. However, I want to move away from convention with this blog and pay homage to the wise words of Lee Mun Wah and embrace this very simple framework.

We need to talk to each other.

Before we can understand how to provide a more inclusive environment for multiracial individuals in higher education (or the broader social world, for that matter), we must understand what exactly is be excluded. Before we can look at New York Times articles and discuss the latest (or traditionally embraced) scholarly works from perennial multiracial identity scholars, we must communicate with each other, and cognitively touch the attitudes, beliefs, values, backgrounds, and narratives that are part of a person’s experience. Before we can think, pair, share, and pontificate on model minority myths, we must lean on speaking and listening (oh, the perspective I could offer on the latter… so stay tuned) as the benchmarks of developing knowledge and awareness that lead us to action. We must ask reflective questions and paraphrase and use mindful listening FIRST and focus on what Wah refers to as solution mode (the point in which we try to solve another person’s problems) LAST and begin to embrace the emotions of other people.

We must close our iPads and open our ears. Because until then, we cannot unmask or unlearn, dismantle, or dissect a thing about frailties, prejudices, and fears.

In this seminar, Lee Mun Wah offered a quotation from Mother Teresa, in which she states, “we have no peace because we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.” I interpret this to mean that we have a relationship with everyone. It’s our job to claim it. We must digest the idea that the purpose of a community of knowledge (see what I did there) that is inclusive and effective begins only when we strip down our roles as educators and reconnect with our role as citizens. And if we’re lucky, the rest of the process will begin to fall into place.

I brought so many things home from this institute (sadly my luggage wasn’t one of them); but nothing has resonated with me more than experiencing a soft-spoken Chinese man with the gall to make me set aside my professional identity and simply be human.  Lee, if you’re out there, please know that in the few hours we spent together, you had the nerve to humble me, scare me, and make me come to grips with some of my vulnerabilities.

And for that (among many other things)…. I am forever indebted to you!

Happy Holidays! 

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