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Cornell multicultural expert conducts trainings on cultural diversity throughout New York

"We are all born with an enormous capacity for goodness and we all learn racism and other forms of oppression," says Kathy Castania, a multicultural expert at Cornell University. "We cannot be blamed for learning the racism we were taught, yet we have a responsibility to try to identify and interrupt the cycle of oppression."

To help curb racism, prejudice and discrimination such as homophobia and social class and gender oppression, Castania trains educators, health care workers, extension staff, and community and state agency workers throughout New York, but particularly in communities with migrant workers.

"As a society grappling with issues of diversity, we can change legislation but unless you change attitudes, racism won't go away," says Castania, a professional multicultural educator and senior extension associate for the Cornell Migrant Program in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

The goal of her workshops, she says, is to change the "lens" through which people view the world and help them dismantle the unnatural divisions they have learned and learn to value the differences among peoples. "But the issue is complex and some people are hypersensitive or guarded for fear of being attacked, which makes the process of learning and teaching a delicate one that can backfire if not handled carefully," Castania warns.

That's why she conducts the intensive, three-day interactive "Opening Doors: A Personal and Professional Journey" training, which leads participants through a process in a supportive atmosphere of exploring how their learned biases create barriers in their lives and inhibit effective intercultural communication. She also leads a one-day training, "Creating Partnerships: Management for the Future," for administrators and organizations.

Migrants farmworkers, who are predominantly people of color, live with the outcomes of the institutional and individual racism in their communities all the time, Castania says. She seeks to provide a framework in their and other communities to spur change toward a shared vision for creating healthy diverse communities.

"Prejudice hurts everyone, both members of the privileged group as well as the targets of racism," Castania says. "To move toward constructive action, we need to promote a process of personal emotional healing from past experience with oppression."

Castania launches this process with a discussion about the assumption that we are all born good, but learn racism and oppression. That means people can unlearn these ways of seeing and believing. She challenges the group to share early memories of learning about exclusion and discrimination. She explores with the group how society and the media perpetuate biases and prejudices and how people internalize subservience and passivity or dominance and entitlement. She helps the group analyze how these same mechanisms work for different forms of oppression.

She then helps participants see themselves as members of groups, be they racial, religious, gender- or sexually-based, socio-economic, etc. and to identify times when they were mistreated or misjudged as members of a particular group or acted or believed as members of a dominant group identity.

"I try to get individuals to see themselves as both oppressed and oppressors as windows into the process of social oppression," says Castania, who estimates she has done more than 50 diversity trainings in the past few years throughout New York.

Castania then discusses taking pride in the groups and finding and appreciating value in these identities. Among other activities, she also leads participants through role plays to have them glean insight into how people respond to others and others respond to them and to practice using productive and healing ways of confronting attitudes and behaviors that offend them.

"I hope to promote intercultural communication that has a healthy approach to diversity, where there is potential for great learning, rather than tension or destructive conflict," says Castania, who recently authored the fact sheet, Diversity: What is Diversity? for Cornell Cooperative Extension; she will be publishing The Evolving Language of Diversity this spring.