Breaking taboos

“We provide people the opportunity to talk about things that never get talked about — and that’s probably the best thing that we can do for the community,” says Deborah Miles, executive director of the Center for Diversity Education.

A recent CDE exhibit titled Of Many Colors, for example, highlights the experiences of people living in multiracial families. “That’s historically been something that was pretty much forbidden in Southern communities, and now that’s just normal, not even a head-turner thing anymore,” says Miles. “But we never talk about it.”

Founded in 1995, the CDE is celebrating its 10th anniversary by coordinating a series of events paying tribute to the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality, which played a key role in the campaign to desegregate public facilities in Asheville during the early 1960s (see “Peaceful Warriors”).

The road that led Miles to her current work stretches back to the late 1980s, when the longtime Asheville resident and mother of three got involved with a group of fellow parents at Asheville’s Jewish Community Center exploring what local schools were doing to promote diversity.

“We found that everything had changed about the school system — except for what was taught,” remembers Miles. “School had gone in Asheville from being a segregated system to being an integrated one, but they hadn’t really changed what they taught” about the many and varied cultures that exist side by side in Western North Carolina.

It took years of experimenting to find a workable approach. “It’s really hard to get the school system to change from within,” she notes. “So eventually what I thought might work is if we set up sort of a model organization that the school system could purchase services from. I used The Health Adventure as a model; [it] provides scaffolding, provides support services for the science and health curriculum. We try to do the same thing for diversity and related curriculum issues.”

Based first at the Jewish Community Center and then at Pack Place, the CDE moved to the UNCA campus in 2003. There Miles and Mandy Carter, the nonprofit’s two full-time staffers, instruct future teachers on how to promote diversity in the classroom. The Center also conducts diversity workshops in local schools and directs field trips, reaching roughly 15,000 students a year.

Confronting prejudices, says Carter, means talking about them directly — which can be as hard for teachers as it is for society at large. “What we’re doing is being very honest and real about the issues that are there. Dancing around them is not a good idea.”

But talking straight about formerly taboo topics also means acknowledging that there’s strength in people’s differences, she observes. “During a recent teacher training, a question came up: Why are we pointing out all these differences if we’re really trying to unite?” Carter’s answer: “If we don’t admit that different cultures are different … then we’re blocking ourselves off from really understanding. We need to celebrate each culture and really learn about them — but then not see people only as a member of that culture. … Look at the beauty of these cultures, but also look at people as individuals.”

The Center’s 10th anniversary also has Miles thinking about what might lie ahead. “The dream is that this would become a statewide organization, that there would be other centers for diversity education in other university settings within their teacher-education programs, and that the state would become more serious about intentionally preparing for a pluralistic democracy.”

That’s thinking big, but Miles believes it’s a real possibility. “After all, all this started as an idea,” she says, gesturing around the CDE’s office, which is brimming with materials from dozens of workshops, exhibits and other projects. “And look what we’re doing today.”

To learn more about the Center for Diversity Education, visit the Web site (www.diversityed.org) or call 232-5024.

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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