Embracing our Diverse Cultural Legacies
Professor of Psychology Alexis Abernethy and Assistant Professor of Psychology Cynthia Eriksson co-teach the course Clinical Interventions: Introduction to Diversity. Below they share their reflections on that course, and on the larger topic of diversity.
Dr. Alexis Abernethy:
The term “diversity” is often misunderstood. It does not just have to do with underrepresented groups; it involves understanding and embracing the cultures we all carry with us. Each one of us operates from our own unique context—our family of origin, our culture, the values we’ve learned, and those pivotal life circumstances by which the Lord has directed our paths.
I have been thinking, writing, reflecting on and engaging in the topic of diversity since 1982, when I helped develop the first undergraduate course on diversity at U.C. Berkeley. In the research I now pursue at Fuller, where I look at intersections between spirituality and health, we make an effort to consider cultural issues at every step of the process—from the conception of our research projects to the interpretation of findings. We encourage students to consider the impact of cultural lenses—both our own and those of our participants—as we develop our methods and interpret our results.
The Introduction to Diversity course I co-teach with Cynthia involves lectures, guest presentations, and small groups. I have seen how those small-group discussions are invaluable to students as they share honestly with others. We want students to develop “cultural competency” in their clinical work, and an important step in that process is learning to relate to one’s peers. Students who already know each other often go through this class and then say to one another, “I really got to know you in ways we hadn’t ever talked about before.” Discussing our diversity is a process that can be challenging and even overwhelming, but it’s truly worthwhile. Cynthia and I have engaged in a similar process in co-teaching the class and our relationship has deepened as we have journeyed together.
Dr. Cynthia Eriksson:
Over the four years that I have been teaching this course with Alexis, I have come to consider diversity as a key place where the integration of theology and psychology is put to practice. Each of us needs to confront how we respond to "difference." What are the assumptions we make about people? How do we live out grace to those whom we may not understand? How do we find a foundation of trust that allows us to dialogue with people who have a different truth? How do we create a therapeutic relationship when we are sitting in a room with someone with whom we have little “in common”? The objectives of this course raise the challenge of personal awareness of one's own cultural heritage—one's own racial identity—as well as an increased sensitivity to those who have had a different life experience, and the experience of discrimination. The goals of the class are developing cultural competency, as well as human connection.
As a white woman co-teaching the class with Alexis, I have found my own racial identity development an important place to build a foundation. As I have processed the reality of white privilege (as well as privilege as a heterosexual, privilege as an able-bodied individual, etc.), I have needed to move from a place of guilt and shock to (I hope) a place of openness and compassion. I began teaching the class because of my background doing trauma research and training in different international settings, and the experience of teaching has enriched my conceptualization of culture, health, and care.