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Strategies for Building Unity in Diversity


At a time when some politicians are exploiting diversity to exacerbate fears about people who differ in color, first language, or ethnic origin, it is refreshing to remember -- and discuss -- ways to build unity in our programs and communities, strategies for bringing together community newcomers and long-time community members to strengthen the community.

One of these strategies can be team sports. Although it is rare for adult basic skills programs to be able to afford physical education or sports programs, it would be great to hear about examples of these. Although it isn't an example from adult education, here's an inspiring Boston Globe article about Lewiston Maine's high school soccer team and how African immigrants have helped to build community unity.

Another example from Maine is a regular, free, Saturday Milbridge Public Library Tabletop Games Day where adult basic skills teacher and games enthusiast, Ed Latham, offers to community members the opportunity to learn and play board games together. Ed works with the public library to bring together adults and children (8 and older) from many cultures and ethnicities to play board games, learn strategic thinking, and have fun. The library supports this program to bring together long-time and immigrant members of the community to get to know each other, appreciate their similarities and differences, and learn about their cultures and languages. Participants can also learn about other services the library can offer them. Perhaps Ed could join in to describe this further.

Are you aware of adult basic skills programs in the U.S. that offer adult learners physical education, sports, athletics or tabletop games? If so, what are the benefits of these programs? Do they build community unity? Do they help adult students get or stay healthy? Do they have other purposes or benefits?

What other strategies and activities can you suggest for adult basic skills programs to recognize and appreciate cultural diversity among students and to build unity in the adult learning program or in the communities in which students live? Perhaps you know of activities organized around food and nutrition, child-rearing, job clubs, or other areas of student interest. If so, please tell us about them.

David J. Rosen



Edward Latham's picture
One hundred

Our Table Top Gamers met yesterday and for the 6 hours they chose to play together, I was constantly taking breaks to appreciate how great a group we have created. On one table, a middle aged Hispanic woman was teaching four players how to play Puerto Rico. On another table, a local Ed tech III ESL support teacher was leading a game of Pandemic with a 4H leader a 7th grade boy (with attention disorders) and 9th grade girl (introverted Hispanic). All four of these players experiencing a collaboration game in which they all win or loose together based on their teamwork, communication and collaborative problem solving. Meanwhile I was introducing two younger players (8, 12) the joys of Magic the Gathering. This is a game designed by a PHD mathematician and has so much potential in supporting Algebra and Algebra II level standards! At yet another table, we had two of our "regular" players trying to learn a new game so they could introduce the game to the rest of us once they figured things out. Both of these players are shy and did not know each other and yet they collaborated so well and were able to teach me how to play this new game effectively.  

Every Saturday, 8-12+ community members choose to spend 5+ hours together learning, sharing, and enjoying social exchanges with each other. Very few of our players interact with each other outside our game sessions, but that is starting to change as they have all become good friends and have started to extend their social interactions with each other. We have an equal mix of males and females, young and old and native Spanish speakers and English speakers. In addition to learning the vocabulary necessary to gaming, the cultures are now asking each other, "How would you say...?" or "What does your family do when ...?". The exchanges are all based on people wanting to learn more about each other and met with a bit of shyness mixed with pride by all parties at first. This last weekend, a Mexican family offered to bring in some home-made goodies (sorry I forgot the name of the goodies, but they were so yummy!). Another family brought plates, cups and utensils, another family the drinks and another family some snacks and deserts. Of course recipes were exchanged complete with cooking instructions shared in both Spanish and English. My gosh! We were eating for most of the 6 hours we played together! 

The game club idea all started in February this year when I approached the librarian and asked what the library's goals were in short and long terms. She shared with me that increased usage of the library is always a goal, but that she personally felt we had only a few types of people using the library. The elderly residences of the area and the tourists traveling through looking for WiFi were the two main groups that utilized the library. The library would offer many great events through the year, but the events were not always well attended and often there was not a good representation of the diverse communities present. I asked for permission to use the library space as a community gaming center and promptly had to describe what I intended and even what I meant by "games". I shared video links to game descriptions and I explained that the focus was on games that always required heavy social interaction, logic is always more important than chance, and in every turn players must have many viable choices. We did up a proposal to the town and got approval. The first two weekends, I sat there with games sprawled out on tables to help introduce library patrons as to what I was doing and what these types of games were like. I felt like an Amway door to door sales man and I was met with many of the same responses. No one showed up my first two weekends. Still, in our small towns and with the social media push the librarian and I were collaborating on, we finally got two families to show up one weekend. One family was Hispanic, a mother and her son and daughter, and the other family was a multi racial couple and their son. Everyone had a great time and spread the word to their friends which has continued to build and expand our gaming club every weekend. 

What is so fascinating is that you can see some cultural awkwardness when new people come into our group and over just a few weeks that awkwardness dissipates. Naturally new-comers are always shy when joining an established social group, but the language and cultural differences were quite evident as well. Because our group is so diverse by any metric (age, gender, race, education level, economic range...) any new player immediately can relate to someone in our group. A sort of mentoring happens automatically with different game members automatically jumping up to introduce a newbie to our gaming group and how we do things. There are no rules on the walls, no requirements stated or even implied. I believe it is the social structures within the games we share that establishes group norms. People come in to play or learn a game first, then they get hooked into the social diversity sharing that naturally flows from the fun we have together. 

Not only are our numbers growing, the ambitions are growing as well. A few players have been pushing to get tee shirts for our group to advertise how great our gaming sessions are. We have a couple of aspiring artists in the group working on logos and designs while others are researching best places to get shirts manufactured for only 20 or so players right now. The librarian and I composed a letter to two or three game manufacturers to share how popular their games were with our game group and a brief history of what we aim to do in our group. This has resulted in over $350 worth of games being donated to the library from a couple of manufacturers. Some part time residents that only visit the area in the summer have watched our group with fascination during their summer migration and have decided to donate hundreds of dollars to the library to build our supply of games. Before these acquisitions all the games brought in were from my collection (I have thousands of games of so many types). Another library has asked our group if we could travel to their library one Saturday to help show locals in that region how to get started, what our games look and feel like, and in general, what makes gaming so great! 

As an educator, I have so many motives at work in this gaming effort. The low hanging fruit is the increase in reflection, communication, and logical processing. As powerful as those three elements are, there are so many other educational gains and even career opportunities. As the player base, and the exposure to so many different types of games increases, I expect to discover a few players that would be interested in learning how to create their own games. This sets the stage for a series of adult ed classes aimed at game design, production, basic self or small group employment, and many other classes that would help create a small game building company in our impoverished and remote county in Maine. As a computer programming nut, I also feel it would not be much more of an extension to expand a game company to have digital versions of their games as well. This would necessitate some adult education programming classes and the development of a small computer/digital programming company as well. Even more employment opportunities for a multi-cultural community that often feels a lack of opportunity is available.

In my successful gaming experiences in three different geographic communities over 30 years, social gaming groups have more power to create positive successes in communities than most people realize. I know our gaming group in Milbridge is just starting to see the potential after our 6-7 month start up. To see their energy, passion, and love for each other growing every weekend...well, lets just say that no one is keeping score in our games because we all know we are all winning in so many ways!

Leecy's picture
One hundred

David and Ed, I really appreciate that you have raised the issue of sports and gaming. We often hear that smiling is a universal language. I truly believe that healthy competition is also universal although it is expressed in different ways. Folks in some cultures resist competition in the classroom, and rightly so, but readily participate in other types of friendly competition as a way to hone skills and build community. The Olympic games certainly provide excellent examples of how that is true. Competition needs to be better understood as a learning tool.

I'm glad that sports and games are being so effectively used in programs like you describe. Here in the Four Corners, I have long advocated that programs offer the opportunity for learners to "play" outside and even have teams competing against each other in spaces that provide opportunities to practice. Table games also offer huge benefits, not only for learning all sorts of academic and workplace skills but as a means to build community and consequent retention.

I hope that this discussion inspires others to provide examples of how this type of healthy competition can enhance learning among adults! Let's hear more! Leecy