Teacher turns diversity awareness into activism
Paul Gorski never forgot the invitations to Taco Night.
They featured a floppy sombrero and a dancing cucaracha for the Cinco de Mayo festival at his grade school.
He recalls his teacher asking one of his fifth-grade classmates, who was Guatemalan, whether the tacos were authentic.
The child answered with a shrug.
When the event ended, Gorski had learned no more about Mexico or Mexican-American people than he had known upon arriving. But worse, he was led to believe that Mexican culture is synonymous with tacos, even though nobody in Mexico eats those hard, crunchy shells preferred in the United States.
In addition, the event implied that Mexican and Guatemalan are synonymous, and, by extension, all Latino people are the same.
“Thus, began my diversity education,” said Gorski, who is a professor at George Mason University's Century College in Fairfax, Va. He teaches about class and poverty, educational equity, animal rights and environmental justice.
He also is a featured speaker today at Blackhawk Technical College during Diversity Week.
The purpose of the annual event is to expose staff and students to various forms of diversity and to dispel the myth that diversity focuses on only one or two groups, said Wanda Sloan, BTC diversity and staff development specialist.
So far this week, staff and students have heard speakers on autism, diversity in religions and cultural relationships.
Gorski will talk about how communities can move beyond hosting cultural fairs to having frank discussions about race and equity.
“I'm happy that some people are focusing their energies on cultural-exchange activities,” he said. “But what I'm interested in is how do we eliminate the bias and prejudice from our communities? Cultural celebrations are one step, but if we want a community free of racism, we have to talk about racism.”
Tough conversations can get stuck “because we don't want to make anyone uncomfortable,” Gorski said. “But there is no way to have a conversation about bias and oppression without someone being uncomfortable.”
He said he will provide strategies for moving forward.
Gorski used to do community activism, then he decided to work with educators because he felt he could multiply his impact.
In the mid-1990s, Gorski started EdChange, a team of passionate and experienced educators committed to diversity and social justice. He was a graduate student at the University of Virginia.
“It began as a way to take the resources I was developing and to share them,” he said. “Later, I looked around and saw all these people doing incredible work, and no one knew about them. We do resource development for educators and activists.”
His areas of specialty include racial equity in schools and school districts, poverty and class equity in school and community groups and strategies for closing achievement gaps.
Ultimately, his work is about addressing inequities head-on.
“We all benefit from that,” Gorski said. “As a white person and a man, I can never really find a spiritual home if I know that my neighbors are experiencing discrimination, and I am somehow complying with it by not doing anything about it.”
He has been a consultant, presenter and trainer for almost 20 years, conducting workshops and providing help to schools and community groups committed to equity and diversity. In addition, he has written three books and more than 30 articles on diversity issues.
“I always have had a sense that my calling in life was to advocate for people who did not have as much opportunity as I had,” Gorski said. “That's why I do what I do. I have an overactive sense of empathy and desperation to do something.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.