Coordinator of Federal Relations & Research Programs
I want to talk about our natural tendency to put people in boxes. By putting people in boxes, we attempt to make sense of the world around us. It is our human nature to quickly work up an idea of someone by what they wear, where they live or even what they drive. It reminds me of a story that was going around town several years about Tallahassee Barbies. There was the Bobbin Trace Barbie that came with your choice of a BMW convertible or a Hummer H2, and the Railroad Square Barbie made from Tofu. There was also the Market Square Barbie, the Frenchtown Barbie and the Wakulla Barbie, among others. As I mention these, you are already mentally thinking about what these Barbies would look like. It is human nature; and it is reinforced everyday by media. And while we can joke about it, it really is quite a shame, because we often make up our minds about people before we get a chance to really know them.
Let me give you an example. I am going to give you two descriptions. Description one: A female, Southern Baptist, gun owner, teetotaler, who lives in the south and teaches little girls at her church about missionaries...and loves old hymns. Description two: Also female. Registered Democrat, environmentalist, who is into natural foods, supports legalizing medical marijuana, went to school to be a social worker, and loves the Beatles. Have you formed any images? Are you thinking about which of the two you would rather hang around with, or which of the two you would choose to avoid? Now let me tell you something more. Both descriptions are of the same person...and that person is me.
I am often surprised when people draw assumptions about me based on the limited information they have. They know I am a Baptist, they assume my politics. They know I am a social worker, they assume my social leanings. For me, it reinforces how important it is not to make assumptions about people. Diversity comes in all sorts of packages, and I would argue, in every package.
When I was growing up in northern Indiana, my parents owned two Laundromats. Both of my parents worked at the stores, seven days a week, with the exception of Christmas, Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. I would go to work with my mom after school and on the weekends as well. I spent a good deal of my childhood inside of Laundromats. And do you know what is wonderful about Laundromats? The diversity of people that use them. Especially back in the 70's when not everyone had washers and dryers. Being the social kid that I was, I would spend my time talking with customers. They were old, young, well off, poor, white, black you name it, and they came to wash their clothes. I heard lots of stories and got to know people for more than the 10 second "assess and categorize" time. I learned that you don't really "know" someone until you take time to actually know them, and that was a wonderful lesson to learn at an early age.
An area of my life that shaped my awareness of inclusion was the fact that I was the first in my immediate family to go to college. My dad was a high school graduate and took some classes at a tech school. My mom got sick her senior year of high school and didn't graduate. Both of my brothers dropped out of high school. I was the youngest, and I can tell you that when this is the educational backstory of your family, going to college is not often on the radar for you in the eyes of your family. My guidance counselor was urging me to go off to school, and most of my friends were planning for college, and it was something I was really hoping to do. My parents sat me down and told me that there was no way they could afford to send me to college. For them, that was the end of the story. Fortunately, I didn't let that stop me and I started applying for financial aid. Because of financial aid, hard work, and the grace of God, I am standing before you today, a graduate of Florida State University, with both Bachelors and Masters Degrees. This experience has made me appreciate why some people choose not go to college and also why it often is difficult, when family encouragement and support is lacking, for some students to remain focused and "stay the course". I applaud the efforts of this University to reach out to students who, like me, did not come with tools in hand to navigate college life.
Finally, I want to share one last story. It is an additional reminder, to me, about putting people in boxes. When I first came to Tallahassee to attend FSU, I was not a Christian. I was not raised around people who regularly attended religious services, and I realize now that I had preconceived notions about those who did and they were not terribly positive. I would even find myself being slightly annoyed to be delayed by police on Sunday mornings so "those people", could get out of their church parking lots. Then, in an ironic and unforeseen twist you might say, God got my attention. At age 33, I accept Jesus Christ as my savior, and, since then, there are many ways God has changed my heart. One way, not surprisingly, is my view of Christians. I learned that they are as diverse as any other group of people. There are those that fit many people's stereotype of a Christian, and many who are challenging to fit into any stereotype.
No one belongs in a box. Everyone deserves a chance. Everyone has a wonderful and diverse story.