Award-Winning Intercultural Facilitators Talk Campus Social Justice

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LMU student holding a microphone engaging with intercultural facilitators in discussion of justice.

The Intercultural Facilitators program has become an important social justice force on the Loyola Marymount University campus since it began five years ago. The work of participating students has also gained national attention, most recently with a Voices of Inclusion Group Medallion from the American College Personnel Association and the George Luis Sedano Award for Outstanding Multicultural Program from the National Association for Campus Activities. The program has garnered at least five other awards.

There are 18 to 25 Intercultural Facilitators at any given time in the program, led by Henry Ward, a director in the Intercultural Affairs Ethnic and Intercultural Services department. They take a yearlong course in effective facilitating of critical cultural conversations, then assist their fellow LMU students and outside groups in these topical and sometimes controversial discussions. The goal is establishing an authentic understanding of self by using nontraditional methods of community engagement and an honest and inclusive approach to transformative student development. As Ward told the Los Angeles Loyolan newspaper: "They are a committed group of students who have a passion for social justice and are dedicated to living the mission of this university.”

A group of IFs sat down with us to talk about their experiences. 

LMU: What's your elevator pitch for IF?

Josh Ocana (junior mathematics major with a minor in secondary education): We're a group of diverse students who really focus on social justice issues; so, maybe racial issues, gender inequity, whatever comes to mind when you say social justice, and we lead talks. And we believe that the talks benefit the community, so we try to get the community involved. 

Aaron Radulski (sophomore civil engineering major): I'd say the purpose of the program is to have students leading facilitations with other students, having that peer-to-peer contact in a safe space discussing difficult issues. The role of the facilitator is simply to guide the conversation and not to influence its content in any way, other than leading away from misinformation being introduced, which can be a delicate.

Raymond Duronslet (sophomore political science major): These are critical discussions that ultimately are looking to help students have a better understanding of themselves and the role that they play in a lot of these projects that we're talking about. So, these discussions, they tend to be, like Aaron was saying, very delicate and sometimes emotional. But the goal is have individuals embrace the roles that they've taken in the past and develop a better kind of strategic role in their interactions. 

Makda Medhanie (senior health and human sciences major): Although I was born and raised in the beautiful and diverse city of Oakland, California, I refer to home as the country where my roots run deep: Eritrea. Both of my parents are immigrants from this small East-African country, and even being so far from home, they always emphasized Eritrean values and culture. As a result, I have always been passionate about sharing with others this aspect of my identity. As an IF, I find so much joy being able to learn about the various identities that make up the LMU community, as well as unpack and discuss the various cross-cultural issues that impact our campus.

LMU: Describe a typical facilitating session. Is there a typical direction?

Medhanie: Every facilitation starts with a “story of self,” which is when the facilitators share a personal narrative that connects their background to why we do this work. Next, we usually go over the goals and objectives of the facilitation. Following that, we do various activities, usually in smaller groups, and then collectively share what has been discussed. The activities all depend on the topic or size of the facilitation.

Radulski: There is no typical facilitation. You'll be in a room with anywhere from five to 150 people. You'll be talking about everything from gender to sustainability to income inequality and race. You will be talking with people who sometimes have very firsthand experience with the issues and sometimes have absolutely no experience with the issues; and sometimes those viewpoints clash, and sometimes the environment becomes very emotional. And sometimes that doesn't happen; sometimes it's a walk in the park. Everyone gets along and has an agreement coming into the conversation, and it's just a collaboration of minds on the same page. And everything between those two scenarios.  

LMU: Do you have one-time sessions with a group or would you have several?

Radulski: For the most part we've had one-time sessions. There are groups who request sessions regularly, and the sessions become more of a continuous effort. And then there are also events that we host ourselves through the Intercultural Advancement Program, annual events in which people can come and build on what was said the previous year, look forward to the future, and come back together after a year and continue the conversation. 

Ocana: One of the events that we have annually is the National Dialogue on Race, where we invite people to discuss effectively race and how that impacts our lives, especially even within the LMU community, and that's kind of like the main one that we do. And then it's just really dependent on whoever needs or requires the facilitation.

LMU: What is the best experience you've had with a group?

Duronslet: The National Dialogue on Race, when we had a discussion with [Los Angeles] police officers. I have a kind of personal connection to that topic, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to actually sit down with a police officer in a group, and a professor and students, and discuss these real-world issues of profiling, police brutality. [We talked about] a multitude of issues and different ways that we can look at them from different perspectives, and working together to look for solutions. But I especially enjoyed the fact that I was with a diverse group because it kind of allowed perspectives that I wouldn't have been able to look at to offer questions and solutions. 

Medhanie: I think that the best experience I had was facilitating the National Dialogue on Race, because it brought out a huge crowd, and a very meaningful and impactful discussion emerged. After the facilitation a student contacted me and asked to interview me for a project she was working on, which was awesome because it showed that her experience participating in that facilitation impacted her beyond the event.

Ocana: For me for me it'd probably be the celebration we had for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We had small talks at St. Robert's Auditorium where we had groups discussing questions, and where we are now in terms of racial relations. Within the group I was leading, I had a student who identified as a conservative who shyly admitted that he was a conservative, but that he was slightly afraid to admit it. And it was just great for me because my group was supportive and they were saying things like, “No, yeah, you should be comfortable with your identity.” And I even told the student that the moment that you're afraid of sharing your own identity, that's when you know that something's wrong.

And that's what the facilitations are there for, to see that you have people who are there to support who you are, that you can be yourself, and that we should be having these conversations with people of different views.  

Radulski: Every year we host an Intercultural Summit here at the university. We invite a number of high schools students to participate in the summit, and it's a daylong event consisting of several activities, facilitations, and workshops led by the intercultural facilitators. And there was a moment during one of the facilitations that I was leading last year. One of the students from the high schools, somebody who looked particularly young … was speaking about some topic or another. The amount of knowledge that she had, and the amount of eloquence that she was able to use in presenting the knowledge, and the passion that she had for the topic, and the way that she was able to inspire other people in the room just blew me away and made me really hopeful for the future. 

LMU: Have any of the sessions become overly tense or gotten out of hand? 

Medhanie: There have been some sessions where views are polarized but a reminder of the ground rules and the promotion of the idea that facilitations are a safe place usually is the solution to diffuse a tense situation.

Duronslet: I haven't experienced a facilitation that's gotten out of hand. But the tension itself is something that's present in the room when you're actually working with the students who are gaining a better understanding of who they are and the place they’re going into in the world, and you're asking them questions that are revealing things about them that they don't necessarily share with others, and conflicting topics come up. You see people who learn stuff about another person, and you can tell they've learned it just by the facial expression, and it's something that's present in the room. 

Radsulski: There are tense moments in most facilitations, not always even because people are disagreeing with each other. Sometimes it's just very clear that somebody's being very careful about the way that they're wording something, and they're very on the edge about whether or not they're going to offend somebody. Everyone else in the room is also very worried about whether or not they're about to offend somebody. And then of course there are the situations where people are disagreeing with each other and people get heated, but never out of hand. 

LMU: Do you go looking for groups to present to, or do they come looking for you?

Radulski: They file the requests for the facilitations. There are also events that we host and that we invite people to.

Henry Ward: But usually we get requests from all over campus for the IFs to come into a workshop. 

LMU: So how have they heard about the program?

Duronslet: From the students' perspective, I mean, I kind of spread the word. I'm sure we're all involved in different organizations, but these events tend to be very big, and because they're tied into university administration we have people from off campus coming to join these discussions. It's something that I feel is very necessary in this age, so I feel that there is definitely an on-campus presence looking for things like this. 

Radulski: Yeah, it's almost self-promoting. People hear about it, they get excited, they come to events they hear about, and then we just naturally talk about, oh, what did you do yesterday? What did you do earlier tonight? Word of mouth. And then for these particular events that we host, we promote them, we advertise them. 

LMU: When you go to a group, an event, to facilitate, do you have an end result in mind for the workshop, or are you emphasizing the process, the process of discovery, of better understanding? 

Duronslet: I would say that it's both. Me personally, when I go into the facilitation, something that's an outcome or a goal that I look for – especially when I don't know a lot of the people going into it – is connection. I definitely can feel a vibe when it ends, and if people are expressing they've learned something and they're willing to move forward, but we definitely emphasize the structure of it. I would say that that's a lot of what our training is. 

Radulski: There are specific, clear cut objectives for workshops when we go into them, as well as the individual activities that we conduct in the workshops, in the facilitations, but it's understood that those objectives do not nearly capture all of the objectives. Those are very specific points that the activities and discussions cater to, but there is an overarching goal of simply self-discovery, connection, understanding other people's culture, understanding your own culture better. 

LMU: Henry, have you noticed a change in five years that more groups are requesting IFs? Are people more willing to talk?

Ward: Oh, absolutely. I think in the beginning people really didn't know we were here, and now with programs like this – I think Aaron actually experienced a program where he said, ‘Wow, I want to do that.’ And that was happening at orientation as a freshman.  

LMU: How did the students get into the program?

Ward: The IFs are present all during orientation, but also at Breakfast and Conversations like we had the other day, where we sort of showcase what we do in front of faculty and staff, because most of the people that request us are either faculty members or staff members who will say, “Can you come out? Can you come to a Center for Service in Action meeting? I'm having my students there and we want to talk about issues of race and ethnicity. Can you lead that?”

So, it's showcasing the students, and I would venture to say we, within one semester, have touched more than half the population here at LMU, because we start in June. We do all of June orientation August for welcome week, so every incoming freshman living on campus, the facilitators will have facilitated a session with them. And it's all part of demystifying this thing called interculturalism. It's for folks to understand when you hear that term, we are talking about you, not those people over there. It means you. So, they demystify that notion. And one of the other wonderful things that they do, especially during orientation with the first-year students, is really kind of talk about the mission of the university, who we are. That's the one thing that binds us all together, the mission. We're all Lions, and what does that mean?

So they take them through the three-pronged part of the mission, from the encouragement of the learning, the education of the whole person, service of faith and a promotion of justice, and what that means.