Reporter: Erik Judson
The NASA SHARP students were given this presentation as part of an effort to raise awareness of cultural diversity and stereotypes and to call forward the necessity of keeping stereotypes and discrimination out of the work environment. It was given to the students following their first week of work, beginning on June 28, 2005 at 8:00 p.m. in the Phase II Lounge at Cal State University Los Angeles.
In the beginning of the workshop, Mr. Tyler Huynh asked the students to fill out some basic information about themselves in a column format, which included birthplace, religion, spoken languages, and the number of siblings each student had. In this easy-to-follow format, the students realized that, despite their differences, they were very much alike. Some of their characteristics were strikingly similar, as in the case of having five Christians, or very different; there was one person who had no siblings.
Once all the students filled out the table, Mr. Huynh shared a poem about discrimination in society and the consequences in believing in the righteousness of those prejudices entitled, “The Cold Within.” The poem, by James Patrick Kenny, dealt with a group of men freezing to death clutching logs for the diminishing fire. However, rather than put their logs in the fire, they created justifications for why they shouldn’t help keep the fire going. Instead of freezing to death from the inclement weather, the men froze because of the coldness in their own hearts. The poem exhibited the problems in defining and judging people based only on what you observe from afar or understand remotely—in the form of the church attendee who saw a man next to him not of the church and refused to give his log for that or of the man who wouldn’t be the one to help warm a black man.
Tyler then challenged the students to define “culture.” He split them into groups of five and gave them five minutes to create their definitions on small sheets of poster paper. After the students shared their similar (containing the same basic information), yet varied (some were written in list form while others were in a dictionary-like form), definitions, Mr. Huynh explained culture as being “a system of meanings created, shared, and implemented by a population of people representing a total way of life and transmitted to future generations.” He showed the students what culture meant to allow them to fully understand the rest of the workshop.
Following the definition of culture, Mr. Huynh asked the students to think of two of their cultures—not necessarily race or religion—and share them with the rest of the students. They told the rest of the group about why that particular culture was important to them, citing such examples as it being a prominent part of life their city or just an activity that means a lot to them. Some students chose sports, academics, or music as one of their cultural lifestyles. Then, picking one of their cultures, the students stated stereotypes associated with that particular culture. Tyler’s example was as follows: “Asian people are terrible drivers.”
He then brought the students back into groups of five and gave them the task of creating strategies for dealing with stereotypes. Despite the variety present in each group and the variety between groups, the solutions for stereotyping were all very similar. The students’ responses all bore the option to prove the stereotype wrong (“If Asians were terrible drivers, you wouldn’t be here.”) or to simply walk away from the person bringing up the stereotype.
Staying within the same groups, the students were told to think up two truths and one lie about themselves. Then they were to see how many of their group mates could guess the lie. With some of the things the students had done, such as being a possible Native American tribe leader, guessing fact from fiction became very difficult for others in the group. This portion of the workshop helped the students understand the underlying experiences and characteristics each student possessed; it isn’t prudent to base your judgment of the person’s own experiences on the way they look or act.
The groups split up and everybody went to the center of the room. There, they were told to close their eyes and raise their hand. The room was darkened and the students were paired with each other at random throughout the room. The only identifying feature they could use to determine the characteristics of their partner was his/her hand. They were asked if they could tell what gender, race, religion, and personality their partners were by the feel of their hands. The only feature some of the students could determine was the gender, based on the size and level of care that had gone into the hand. This helped demonstrate the way most of our judgment of people comes from what we see, rather than what lies below the skin. The reactions given by some pairs of students—usually shock or surprise—proved how little they could actually tell about someone based on the feel of their hands.
Once the students were shown who their partner was, they were lined up on one side of the room. Mr. Huynh then gave them conditions to cross to the other side of the room. For example, he said, “Cross the line if you are the first in your family to be going to college.” The students then looked across the room and around them to see who fell into each of the ten or fifteen categories Tyler presented. This activity helped show what common characteristics existed among the students despite the differences in where they were from or what their religion and race were.
In closing, Tyler summarized the workshop by saying everybody has a culture and we shouldn’t judge them based simply on the way they look. Understanding and respecting somebody’s culture is essential to have a well-operating workplace. The students were excused from the Phase II Lounge at 9:30 p.m.
Overall, the students thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Huynh’s workshop and gained a greater understanding of the importance of diversity and knowledge, rather than ignorance, of diversity in the work environment.