Today marks the end of my second week as coordinator at Inclusive Dubuque. It’s been a delightful, amazing, intense, educational, and, just a couple of times, overwhelming experience. As I sat in meetings and listened to the insightful and interesting conversations, I was struck by the many different reasons people are sitting at the inclusion and equity-building table. For some, it’s a social justice issue, while for others it’s more about economics—the need to create a rich and vibrant culture that will make Dubuque a more attractive place to live and work.
While I am of the mindset that it doesn’t really matter why people are at the inclusion and equity-building table as long as we are making decisions that benefit all people regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or gender expression, I thought it might be beneficial to share some of what has brought me to the table as a way of introducing myself.
First, it seems important to share with you that when my husband Eric and I were considering Dubuque as a place to live, I spent a lot of time on Google researching everything I could about Dubuque. I read about the cross-burning incidences from the late 80s and early 90s, watched some YouTube videos about the same, and then found Inclusive Dubuque. Eric and I have traveled and worked with nonprofits in developing countries such as Haiti, Cameroon, Guatemala and others, so moving to a place that was not only concerned about inclusion and equity but was working as a community to address any issues that might stand in the way of these endeavors was enough to convince us that moving to Dubuque was smart. We definitely made the right choice, and I’m sure there are many others currently living here who have similar reasons. I encourage those who have lived here for a long time to never minimize the influence and importance that inclusion and equity work has on those who might be wondering if Dubuque is where they should be establishing roots.
Before moving to Iowa five years ago to teach at Upper Iowa University, I taught culture, communication and composition courses at Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where I received my doctorate in Rhetoric and Technical Communication. My research interests in academia were, for the most part, the result of growing up in a very strict and exclusive environment. Difference, whether in the form of ideas, people or culture, was something to be fearful of, not curious about. As I ventured out into the world, I was stunned, and absolutely delighted (with more than just a little tingle of fear), to meet people who blew apart the stereotypes and narrow categories that I had been taught to place them into. I started to question all of the things that I believed to be true, and the more I questioned, the more I began to see how my fear of difference limited me in almost every area of my life. I was also able to see that my identity, the person I believed myself to be, was directly related to the way I viewed, and the stories I believed, about difference.
It was this insight that led me to study narrative identity, which is the idea that who we believe ourselves to be is the result of the stories that others tell about us, which in turn affects the stories we tell about ourselves and others. We respond to the stories that others tell about us in specific ways, which usually includes how we treat others. In other words, our response to all of these stories affects the way we move through the world. This means that not only do we need to be mindful about the stories we tell about other people and ourselves, we need to diligently work to change the cultural and social narratives that limit ourselves and others.
This is what we are doing here at Inclusive Dubuque. The network is committed to changing the stories that would keep any community member from feeling respected and valued. What I love most about this work is that I understand that it is not just a community initiative; it’s personal. Being engaged in this kind of work will always require me to be very mindful and reflective of how I am responding to the people and the stories I interact with on a daily basis. Am I being judgmental or limiting in any way? Am I creating a space that allows others to share who they are with me, even when such sharing might make me uncomfortable or is contrary to the work of creating an equitable and welcoming community for all regardless of race, ethnicity, age, religion or gender expression?
There is no way to get this right 100% of the time. It’s a process, and sometimes a messy one. I am going to make mistakes; we all are going to make mistakes. But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Let’s not be silent, and let’s make every life matter.