Susan Cox: A helpful lesson on helping others

Last semester the faculty and staff at Ivy Tech and IUPUC read “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” by Heather McGhee. Using lots of research, McGhee shows how many policies and practices designed to hurt minorities also hurt the white majority. While I found all of her research fascinating, distressing, and quite eye-opening, what stood out to me was the need for all of us to work together to craft policies and practices that can help everyone.

One example describes how fast-food workers in Kansas City organized to fight for better working conditions and pay (Stand Up KC). Bridget, a white woman with three children, dropped out of college to help support her family when her mother got sick. She has worked in fast-food for more than a decade and was skeptical about joining the movement. But, when she went to her first meeting, a Latinx woman described her life — three children in a two-bedroom apartment with plumbing problems and feeling like she was trapped in a life with no opportunity to progress.

Bridget saw herself in this woman, which allowed her to realize that all of the fast-food workers needed to join together to solve this problem. She told McGhee, “In order for me to come up, they have to come up, too — because we have to come up together. Because honestly, as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered. The only way that we’re going to succeed is together.”

We have many issues that need to be solved in our community, nation, and world. Finding common ground with those who seem unlike us and/or have different approaches can be a good way to find solutions. We can unite around a shared purpose (solving the issue) like the fast-food workers did in Kansas City.

McGhee also cites research that shows that when we work in groups with those who are socially different from us, we produce better outcomes. When our groups are homogenous, we expect that we will agree with one another and have similar perspectives, but when our group is diverse, we expect there will be differences of opinion and perspective and that reaching a consensus will take more effort. This extra effort can lead to more creativity and innovation.

We all have different experiences, and when we share them as we work on shared challenges, we learn about things we may not be aware of. I regularly ask my students which things are working for them and which things are not. I organize my class and present assignments in ways that make sense to me, but I need input from my students to see things from their perspective.

McGhee’s discussion of how policies that help minorities also help the majority reminds me of the basic premise of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL encourages educators to make materials available in many formats for all kinds of learners. When I provide written text for things presented orally, this not only benefits those who may have hearing problems, but also helps those who process written information better than oral information and provides something students can reference at a later date.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is another example of a policy intended to help a minority that also helps the majority. Sidewalk cutouts and ramps benefit those in wheelchairs along with parents with stroller, bicyclists, and others who may find steps difficult to navigate.

Whatever our situation, working together with others to solve issues can be beneficial for everyone. We need to stop seeing those who are different from us socially, racially, or politically as the enemy and find common ground as we work toward solutions.