Diversity Circles foster understanding and acceptance of others at PSWS

Marwan Wafa and wife

PSWS Chancellor Marwan Wafa and his wife, Sahar Al Masri, spearheaded the creation of Diversity Circles at Penn State Worthington Scranton to promote greater understanding, inclusion and acceptance within both the campus and local communities, as well as provide a forum for individuals to discuss diversity issues. The effort has resulted in three Diversity Circles having been held so far, as well as a facilitator training.

Credit: Penn State

DUNMORE, Pa. — In today’s world of ill-tempered Facebook arguments, drunken bar fights and shouting matches at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table, it can be difficult to find a place to actually exchange ideas in a healthy, respectful manner.

Diversity Circles provide just that environment. A series of five, two-hour sessions, the circles are essentially an opportunity for small groups of about eight to 12 people of various genders, cultures, ethnic backgrounds and religions to meet and discuss various topics in an effort to understand other perspectives and experiences.

The idea was brought to Penn State Worthington Scranton and initiated at the campus by Chancellor Marwan Wafa, who was introduced to Diversity Circles when he and his wife, Sahar Al Masri, lived in Wisconsin.

Sahar Al Masri conducted Penn State Worthington Scranton's first diversity circle session last year, and then led training for those interested in becoming facilitators of the effort at the campus.

Since late January, Martin Lacayo, Penn State Worthington Scranton's coordinator of multicultural programs and development, and Karin Machluf, assistant professor of psychology, both of whom completed the facilitator training, have been co-facilitating weekly diversity circles on campus.

Lacayo and Machluf completed their first diversity circle program in February. A second one began on March 20. The sessions take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Mondays, and are open to all faculty, staff and students, as well as community leaders and the general public.

“Regardless of who you are, regardless of your major, what you want to do, you are always going to be exposed to people who have different perspectives than you,” Machluf said.

“We tend to create this negative rhetoric between us. I think that rhetoric, that mentality, has created this huge divide, where we’re not even willing to listen to someone, let alone understand them. We listen to react. We listen to speak.”

The same group of people meets for five sessions. The first of those sessions begins with introductions, and from there the facilitators and the participants begin to get to know one another on a closer level. Naturally, due to the fact that there will be controversial and sensitive topics discussed, there are some rules to follow.

For instance, diversity circles are not a place to debate, but rather a forum to engage in a healthy dialogue. The topic for each session is predetermined, but the interpretations, feelings, reactions and the dialogue are up to the participants.

Thus far, the diversity circles have gone well, according to Lacayo.

“Folks are very engaged. They are willing to learn. They are willing to participate, which is part of what going through the circle is all about,” Lacayo said.

The participants are sometimes broken up into teams or groups, but the ultimate goal is to have everyone discussing topics that they may not have otherwise dealt with.

“The idea is to have conversations that might be difficult to have outside of the circle,” Machluf said. “It’s the true definition of a safe space, not safe from ideas that challenge you, but rather a safe space where you could have these difficult conversations and engage with other people who may disagree with you without any hostility. It’s all about dialogue, understanding and empathy.”

“The sole purpose of diversity circles is to get you from the comfortable to the uncomfortable, so that you can grow, you can learn and understand, appreciate and respect others' perspectives,” Lacayo added.

Both Lacayo and Machluf hope to continue the diversity circles for the foreseeable future.

“I went through this diversity circle and it kind of opened my eyes, where I noticed that I was doing the same thing. I was also jumping down peoples’ throats in my mind, and I wasn’t listening to what this person was saying," Machluf said. “And by the end of the diversity circle I felt really open. I felt open to listening.”

“I think diversity circles are a step, not the only step, but a step in noticing your tendencies as an individual, and that’s especially important for college students who are developing their own ideologies and perspectives," she continued. “This is the time where you are defining who you are.”

For more information on the campus diversity circles, email Lacayo at [email protected].