Resident Assistants, the front-line paraprofessional staff members, are the lifeblood of any Housing and Residence Life program because they have the ability to impact a residential community in profound ways. It’s not always the RA’s who deal with the major crises day-in and day-out that make the largest impact on their floor, but the RA’s who perform their duties well and who sometimes go quietly about accomplishing their mission to have an impact on students’ lives. Often times, it is the smallest gesture or thought that can have a significant impact upon an individual student such as remembering a birthday or writing a note congratulating a recent success. All of the little efforts that RA’s put into developing their communities can often result in a cumulative positive effect on their community – something known as the ripple effect – where appropriate role modeling, thoughtfulness, and genuine concern for the community members is adopted by all those who live in it.
For most student staff, issues of diversity and multiculturalism can be difficult to tackle especially when the RA to student ratio is 65:1 on the floor. However, creating a community that is accepting of differences may be easier if RA’s develop a diversity mindset by using the ripple effect principle. A diversity mindset is simple: include an element of diversity education into everything that must be done on the floor. It can be as simple as using quotes from famous people or statistical facts about underrepresented groups in the bathroom stalls.
In the residence halls, we often hear that students are tired of having “diversity shoved down their throats.” Perhaps it’s time that students get a little dash of diversity each day, in subtle ways, as well as through planned educational programs. When an RA is able to present diversity education in small ways consistently on the floor, an environment that is open to diversity is established where not only differences are acknowledged but also similarities are recognized. Developing a diversity mindset requires a commitment to educating others as well as challenging oneself; however, the rewards are great especially when the ripple effect reaches throughout the community and becomes the norm.
Some suggestions in creating a diversity mindset that will have a ripple effect on the students in your community include the following:
Door nametags for residents can cover a wide range of diversity topics. For example, pictures of inventions by African Americans can be in conjunction with a social program game show that requires students to match the invention with the person.
Posting diversity facts or quotes relating to diversity issues on an office or room door.
Thought provoking and challenging bulletin boards are a great passive way to educate students. By using clear contact paper, RA’s can protect their work from potential vandals.
Focus some educational initiatives on less talked about diversity issues such as Lookism or Sizeism. When discussing Lookism, be sure to include different cultural expectations of men and women in regard to appearance and size that will lead to discussions of race and ethnicity.
Be inclusive in advertisements and programs. The Dating Game is a great program but can exclude students who do not identify as heterosexual. Challenge yourself to find a way to include all sexual orientations into relationship-type programs.
Collect brochures and information on all the resources available at your school that serves students with special needs, interests, and identities. Display this information on the floor.
If there is a Safe Space program available at your institution, find ways to make your community a safe place for GLBT and questioning students.
Confront jokes, negative comments and other derogatory comments in an appropriate time and place. Remember, 1-1 discussions often yield better results than confronting a group. Do not underestimate your ability to challenge a student’s thinking. RA’s are often admired (but seldom told so) by residents.
Spice up a movie night by showing a controversial movie such as Higher Learning, Monster’s Ball, or the Breakfast Club. The discussion afterward can prove to be very enlightening.
Be inclusive of all holiday celebrations. Be sensitive to what students’ needs may be.
Any social program can have an element of diversity included into it. For example, a monthly theme that includes Diversity Bingo (with prizes of course!) will help to educate as well reward students – not to mention that it is fun!
All of these are ideas to get you thinking and to challenge you to be creative in your own way, but the important thing to remember, is that diversity and multiculturalism are easily incorporated into your job responsibilities if you commit to developing a diversity mindset.
Submitted by Becky Verzinski, Assistant Director of Residence Life, Towson University