South Puget Sound Higher Education Diversity Partnership Institute 2014

South Puget Sound Higher Education Diversity Partnership Institute 2014

Diversity and identity are topics that frequently intersect and that I find fascinating. Our social nature as humans has given each of us a multitude of different group identities and a unique background that comes together to shape who we are. While diversity and inclusion enriches our communities, these identities (and the histories/power dynamics that they are often entangled with) do regularly come into conflict with each other. In some cases, the conflict is blatantly intentional. In others, they can be very subtle interactions that were completely unintentional. This year’s diversity institute was on these types of “triggering events”, where a stimulus evokes a strong emotional response that can affect our ability to be effective. Dr. Kathy Obear was the facilitator for the day. There were between 200 and 250 people in attendance this year at PLU from higher education institutions around the region.


The seminar contained two basic parts. The first focused on developing a greater awareness of what a “triggering event” was and encouraged each participant to explore a time when they personally were triggered. Triggering events are not necessarily being a victim of some sort of direct discrimination (although those certainly can and are). They also include personal interactions where various elements of our identities are activated in a way that affects our ability to respond. An event such as an interracial couple being told, “That’s just not right, man”, is clearly a trigger, but what about the coworker who is visibly angry over being interrupted? In many cases, that coworker might be marginalized as “crazy”, but something is at play there. Their emotional response suggests that there is something else at play. Understanding what could be at play is one of the topics that was explored in the seminar, since expanding that understanding contributes to greater intercultural sensitivity and helps avoid being the cause of offense in others. 

Another part of the seminar was considering our individual triggers and working on skills to interrupt the emotional reaction in order to get to a more reasoned response. A more in depth explanation of the “trigger cycle” that the Dr. Obear can be found in an article that she wrote here. The process has gone through some refinement since that was published and the point of view is presented from the perspective of a facilitator, as opposed to a workplace or higher education setting, but the points are the same. There is something that happens. It activates an emotional response, likely rooted in some personal experience. That prior experience (possibly) alters the experience of the current situation and creates the opportunity for behavior that may not meet your personal standards. If you do act unproductively, then the cycle risks repeating as that lapse in judgement triggers others.

Large scale diversity training like this tend to attract people with a wide range of skill levels, which means that the material presented has to cover everything from the basics (“The following behavior may negatively impact the quality of discussion … making assumptions based on social group memberships, including gender identity and expression, race, ethnicity…”) to a couple brief passes as more advanced topics. It is also very interesting to discuss these issues with other members of the higher education community and hear the challenges that they encounter in their roles (including students), how they intend to use the skills once they get back, and where people’s skills are in this topic. Sometimes, you can tell that you are broaching completely new subjects with them and acting as an educator and other times, you are the student. This makes the second year that I’ve attended SPSHEDPI and both years have been interesting seminars.