A Diverse Discussion with Dr. Wong(Lau)
It was a little over a year ago that Kathleen Wong(Lau) joined OU Outreach as director of the Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies (SWCHRS). But to say that she had a relaxing first year is a far cry from reality. She hit the ground running, revitalizing the center, working her first National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE), and helping the campus navigate new thresholds in diversity and inclusion. Below is an interview with Wong where she discusses her recent work, current plans, and where the next year will take her.
What impact did the SAE fraternity incident at OU have on NCORE and your work with the SWCHRS?
We had already been doing both responsive work and proactive work with the campus, so it made it easier for us to talk about what our campus was going through with some credibility. We had a panel of students that included students from Unheard.
I had connected with some of the students of the Unheard student group last winter when I had decided to launch a pilot intergroup dialogue facilitators training program. The Norman Police funded two police captains to participate in the program along with others from across the campus. I extended two slots to the Unheard students, just to let them know that if they wanted to come, it could be a good skill building opportunity and it might help with their work. By the time we graduated this class (five trainings), we held the capstone dialogue the Monday following the SAE video going viral. At our event, we had students from Unheard, off-duty police officers, and people from the community. We had to move it into a bigger room.
But because we had this connection with Unheard, I asked if they’d be interested in speaking at NCORE to provide a student’s perspective, not necessarily just about SAE but about the value of activism for students in terms of their education and future career path and the value of having this kind of experience in your education. We had a couple students from Unheard and a Native student from the Cheyanne-Arapaho tribe who provided the Native perspective on how they were now experiencing this more visible aspect of understanding racism and systemic oppression. They did a great job; they were very honest, especially when the audience asked them some very honest questions. Since the student panel was on the pre-conference day, it helped shape the conversation to be an open one. And of course we were all asked individually, ”You’re at OU? Is that the campus with the racist frat?”
While it’s unfortunate that the incident happened, OU was fortunate to have you and SWCHRS to help the campus and community heal and move through it. Is it a coincidence that SWCHRS is moving into the old SAE house?
It depends on what the word “coincidence” means! I wasn’t part of the decision making process. I was only notified that this was something the President’s office would be happy with. They needed to do something with the space and they wanted to support our work. It’s an ideal way to use that space. It helps transition the university in the right direction with diversity and inclusion. That’s my educated guess as to why we were offered the opportunity.
It seems that a revitalization has occurred since you’ve come. The SWCHRS’s name is suddenly more prominent, new training opportunities are being offered, and there is increased outreach to the community. Is this a priority for you?
I think that is the primary reason I was hired—to not only make sure NCORE is on good solid footing but also continues to innovate and be responsive to the changing needs of higher education, especially as we look at intersectionality within race and ethnicity and even the notion of sovereign identity being a different kind of identity than race and ethnicity. But my larger responsibility was to revitalize the work of the SWCHRS, which in its heyday had done a lot of outreach work in the community, particularly with Native communities, public education, teachers, administrators, law enforcement, and other entities. It’s something that I love doing; I feel it’s one of my strengths. It really is my main goal and I had a fairly ambitious plan for the first 2-3 years!
What other activities are on the SWCHRS agenda?
Working with the Norman Police Department, training Walmart managers in their minority leadership program, and training with the governor’s leadership group. I’ve done training with some state entities on mental health and dealing differences in communities of color. But most recently, Camp Crimson and the freshman initiative work have unexpectedly taken on a huge portion of our work, but in a good way. President Boren wanted a five-hour mandatory experience for all incoming freshman. I was part of the President’s and Provost’s Diversity Curriculum Committee, which was made up of people from all over campus to form criteria for what a freshman diversity experience should look like. Then we were tasked to help make that a diversity experience a reality—to write the curriculum, publish the training manuals, and train all of the 2,600 incoming students in Camp Crimson this year. We also had to train to the small group leaders, camp staff, and counselors, which encompasses another 390 people.
Have the students been receptive to the diversity training?
Absolutely. The whole purpose was to help students understand that diversity is really important. It’s very broad and it’s not just about race and it’s no longer just about that video. It’s about making OU an inclusive family. Administrators can see the closeness of these students with each other and their ability to understand that people lead different lives but they still have connections and they all have respected identities as students, as part of OU. That’s really what we wanted, to give them the tools to understand that difference really matters and that sometimes it can be very problematic and painful, but the thing is not to brush it under the rug. It’s important to have the skills to understand and talk about difference and to understand your own identity. Those are skills that employers want. It used to be about being nice and not getting sued and keeping people at work. The problem is we may have everyone being nice but we’re not getting a diversity of ideas; people aren’t participating fully because they’re still not feeling like they can bring their whole self to work. Research on diversity and innovation shows that things like perspective taking—what we call cognitive empathy—is a prized skill right now. I sell that as sort of the business case to the students right up front, that it will increase their critical thinking, cognitive complexity, and understanding of social issues. It’s all a part of the curriculum we designed and we’ve gotten great feedback from students.
On the final day of Camp, students do an exercise in perspective taking and cultural perspective competency. One white male student told us he grew up in a small, very white, very conservative Christian town and that if anyone in his family had ever used the words bisexual or lesbian, people would’ve fainted. He said that after going through the training, he started to realize there was something to the conversation about people feeling hurt or inferior. He said that students from the LGBT community were in his small group and he learned about their experiences. He told the large group, “I really don’t know if I will ever be someone who knows a lot about these issues or someone who is comfortable talking about them, but what I learned today is how to not be a problem and how not to hurt people and maybe, for me, that’s the most that I can do.” To me, this was huge. He said these things in front of 200 people!
Are you planning something for current students or other student groups on campus?
We are also training Gateway instructors to work with their classes, and we are also conducting stand-alone five-hour programs and the hope is that these three things (Camp Crimson, Gateway, and the five-hour standalone programs) will impact a great number of incoming students. The remaining students have the option to take classes that are approved by the diversity committee that would meet the training requirement.
What do you want to do next? Where do you want to take the Southwest Center?
I would like to start an intergroup dialogue facilitator’s institute that would have several levels of skill building and knowledge that would enable people to do certain kinds of work and to work under our supervision. There is a demand for it on and off campus. From consultations with other higher education institutions this year, we’ve had requests for a summer 2-3 day retreat and we’ve had requests for information that could be sent to students, faculty, and administrators.
Sounds like you need some help to get all these things done.
True, but I have a great staff. The people I work with are really willing to roll up their sleeves. They are great problem solvers, and they know so many resources and people on campus. They are so great about having the willingness to take initiative and that’s vitally important.
How was NCORE this year? I understand you had record breaking attendance.
We had about 2,600 people and we broke the record by about 400. That was pretty significant. Part of attendance was that it was held in Washington, D.C. But the other part is that we tried to make it more inclusive by limiting the number of workshops that any individual can do so that we open up more slots for presenters who have really great things to contribute. So now we have more participants, the same number of presentation slots, but a wider variety of presentations, and we also had some very good partnerships. We worked hard with our Native delegates and National Conference on Native Americans in Higher Education to put together an award in recognition of Suzan Harjo and her lifetime of work. That attracted a lot of people to celebrate her work and life and also to engage people in pre-conference activities. We held a number of special events like that with various communities to make things more purposeful in terms of those special programs. That took a lot of work.
Interestingly, this was my first NCORE where I was behind the scenes and I was blown away with how much work had to occur, even right when we got there.
This year, we got great press coverage. We had two roundtables with the Chronicle of Higher Education, which was unbelievable. Diverse Issues did a piece on us. I did interviews on radio stations, including a couple in the Bay area in California, which was good since NCORE 2016 will be in San Francisco.
But I do want to thank Dr. Biscoe and Dr. Pappas for being really supportive. Dr. Biscoe introduced me to OU vice president of student affairs Clark Stroud. When we held the Greek training earlier in the year, the reason it happened so quickly and so seamlessly is because the Thursday after the SAE video was released, he and I had already scheduled a meeting to discuss training on diversity with the Greek system leadership.
Is it safe to say that everybody can benefit from diversity training?
Oh, yes, everybody can benefit. I still learn all the time. I go to conferences, I read, I try to figure out what’s going and what’s the latest research. A lot of people do diversity training that’s actually feeling-based and that’s where if you come away feeling like you learned something, and you probably did. But actually a lot of studies show that you don’t necessarily change your attitudes or behavior as a result of that kind of training. Part of it is that we feel good about ourselves or we get a really high feeling and our thinking gets sloppy. I’m not shutting down the importance of feeling great, but I think there’s a more nuanced way of feeling great—and that is feeling great about struggling to understand yourself and understanding other people. There’s a lot of reward in that, too.
Any parting words?
I want to show my appreciation for the President’s office, the VP of Student Affairs, the VP of University Communities, as well as the Provost because if it wasn’t for them, most of this wouldn’t have happened. It took a lot of units and administrators, and all the stars aligned because everyone saw that this vision was important. I commend them for that because this doesn’t happen on a lot of campuses. Many campuses have incidents like we did and the change doesn’t happen immediately like it did here. It’s really leadership that makes a difference—it really does!