West Virginia ranks near the lowest in the United States on many measures of
diversity, including cultural, socioeconomic, linguistic, racial, ethnic, educational
Because of this, West Virginia University Extension has been a strategic partner to organizations to provide education and promote diversity and inclusion. WVU Extension faculty Tony Michael and Denis Scott are on the forefront of this effort, teaching cultural competency to public sector workers and the United Way in Huntington.
“WVU has a mission as a land-grant institution to create a more diverse and inclusive culture when it comes to understanding prosperity, health care and education in the state,” Scott, WVU Extension associate professor and community engagement and global awareness specialist, said.
Diversity, equity and inclusion education focuses on bringing awareness and knowledge of cultures other than one’s own, as well as providing exposure to different viewpoints, ideas and perspectives.
“Diversity is not a choice. It is all around us—we live in a diverse environment,” Huntington Mayor Stephen Williams said. “The opportunity we have here is to lift up our community in a way that others haven’t expected of Huntington, West Virginia.”
Diversity education can be a useful tool in helping people reevaluate how they see the world. It’s important to get people thinking about how their actions affect others— colleagues, customers, friends and family.
“What we’re really trying to do is unpack unconscious bias so that we can better understand the concepts of bias and how this influences our behavior so that we don’t engage in discriminatory activity at work,” Michael, WVU Extension professor and Family and Community Development program director, said.
More than anything, what Michael and Scott are looking for is a change in attitudes.
“People learn more about themselves so they can more effectively learn how to work with others,” Scott said. “We have research-based, factual knowledge that we use, but we also try to make it personal and localized for participants.”
They approach diversity training in a hands-on way meant to engage the audience. It isn’t a typical lecture—they try to bring in real-world examples that are relevant to the group they are trying to reach.
“This diversity training offers people the ability to increase creativity, problem-solving and resilience within their employees and ultimately create a better product for the customer or the citizens they serve,” said Austin Sanders, a City of Huntington employee who attended this training.
Using cultural competency models that can be applied to real life helps people see the how they can apply these concepts to their own lives. According to feedback from participants, people like this down-to-earth approach, as it teaches the complex information clearly.
“Programs like this are important because these trainings start us through a process of awareness and introspection,” Michael said. “It’s only through that awareness that we can start to appreciate other cultures and recognize that we have a direct role to play in increasing equity in the workplace.”
Allyship -- a new addition to the training – centers around the importance of standing with people who are vulnerable or need support. Michael and Scott help participants walk through the allyship continuum, which is a system of steps to learn how to become an ally, including educating yourself, accepting feedback and building a community, among others. While allyship is critical to the success of any organization, the concept does come with misconceptions.
“Most participants come to us with little to no knowledge of allyship, or sometimes they’ve heard it used with a negative connotation,” Scott noted. “During our training, we help people understand the difference between allyship and performative allyship.” Performative allyship is when someone makes a symbolic gesture of support for a marginalized group—like a corporation changing their social media profile picture to the pride flag during Pride Month without supporting the LGBTQ+ community in any other way. Allyship is more than symbolism as it involves an effort to understand and engage in action.
One of the most crucial steps in the allyship continuum is the last, “practice humility, not perfection.” Michael and Scott want to emphasize that no one must be perfect to be an ally. Learning to recognize bias and better the community is what’s most important. These educational sessions broaden participants’ perspectives and provide tools they can use in their professional and personal lives.
“I am very proud of our partnership with community leaders in West Virginia, including this partnership with the City of Huntington,” Jorge Atiles, Dean of WVU Extension and Engagement, said. “It is wonderful to see community members and leaders who are willing to listen and embrace new perspectives. Understanding not only our differences, but the commonalities that we share, allows us to generate new ideas and enhance creativity to build a better, stronger West Virginia.”
In addition to the work with the City of Huntington, WVU Extension experts have collaborated with numerous organizations throughout West Virginia, including the United Way of the River Cities, the Fairmont Human Rights Commission, Marion County Communities of Shalom, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, and the National Association of Social Workers West Virginia Chapter, among others.
To learn more or organize potential programming or partnerships in diversity, equity and inclusion, contact Michael at Tony.Michael@mail.wvu.edu or 304-293-8685, or Scott at Denis.Scott@mail.wvu.edu or 304-293-8665.
If you want to learn more about WVU Extension, visit extension.wvu.edu or follow @WVUExtension on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.
CONTACT: Sydney Keener