Episode 35: Understanding Bias, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion with Dr. Seria Chatters
Racism. Equity. Diversity. Inclusion. Bias. Bullying. These are all buzz words that we continue to hear and use in everyday life—but what do they mean?
Dr. Seria Chatters has an incredible personal story of resilience. As an African American with albinism and visual impairment, she managed to rise above persistent bullying to earn a Masters and PhD in Counselor Education. She is now a Director of Equity and Inclusivity and adjunct professor in Pennsylvania.
In this episode, she will teach us how to reign in our own micro-aggressions and outright racism even when we are not aware of their existence.
Dr. Chatters will be a featured panelist at the upcoming 12th Annual ERF Conference on Mental Health on Sept 11 & 12. Mental health professionals can earn up to 34 CE credits. To learn more, visit erfcon2020.com.
Mental Note is brought to you by Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Behavioral Health Centers.
Ellie Pike: Racism, equity, diversity, inclusion, bias, bullying, these buzzwords increasingly get thrown around in today's world, but what do they actually, mean, and why are they so powerful?
Fortunately, we're about to meet an [00:00:30] expert who will help us decipher these terms and address our own biases. What's even better is that she'll do it all through sharing her own compelling story. Meet Dr. Seria Chatters.
Dr. Seria Chatters: My name is Dr. Seria Chatters. I have a PhD in Counselor Education. I am the Director of Equity and Inclusivity For State College Area School District.
Ellie: Seria has an incredible personal story [00:01:00] of resilience. As an African-American woman with albinism and visual impairment, she also had to contend with a family who is constantly on the go due to her dad's military career. Join us as we learn how she safeguarded her own mental health, and how that experience brought her to where she is today. We'll end our discussion with addressing how the mental health field itself needs to grow, in order to ethically help people from vastly different backgrounds. We'll learn how to rein in [00:01:30] our own microaggressions, and outright racism, even if we don't know that we're doing them in the first place.
You're listening to Mental Note Podcast, I'm Ellie Pike.
Dr. Seria: I grew up, and my father was in the military, and so we moved around quite a bit. Growing up as a military brat was difficult, but growing up with albinism made it [00:02:00] even more difficult, because not only of the fact that it impacts your appearance, but it also impacts your vision. I was born with congenital low vision, or nearsightedness meaning that I was legally blind. From a very young age, I was wearing very thick glasses, and my skin, due to albinism, was not what you would consider to be a normal hue, or pigmentation thereof, nor my hair color. It was always quite [00:02:30] obvious that I was different. Going to school posed its challenges.
Ellie: Bullying can be devastating for anybody, but Seria felt so outside of the "normal" that she didn't even know what words could help her process these experiences.
Dr Seria: What I learned as I got older with bullying when you're a kid, the unfortunate part is especially even in the '80s and '90s when I was in school, there was not as much of a focus of teaching kids [00:03:00] about what bullying is. A lot of what I was experiencing, I really didn't have a point of reference to say, "This is what's happening to me, and this is what I should do if this is happening to me."
I would say that moving from school to school, a lot of my experiences were just a lot of confusion, definitely, sadness and not understanding why kids were treating me in certain ways. [00:03:30] The other part is that I wasn't really connected with any kind of organizations that really would help me to understand what albinism was. Which is something that if anyone happens to listen to this that has a child with albinism, I would always say that it's super important to get them connected to an organization called NOAH, which is the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation.
It really can help a kid to understand more about albinism as a [00:04:00] genetic disorder and also, to help the kid to be able to gain more confidence in themselves and to know that there are other people out there that look like you because albinism is really rare.
Ellie: To back up and just explain the basics of albinism, it's an inherited condition that affects every racial and ethnic group worldwide. It's marked by reduced amounts of melanin pigment in the skin, hair, and/or eyes. Basically, any pigmentation [00:04:30] that you'd normally inherit is diminished, and you end up having light-colored skin, different colored eyes, and light-colored hair.
While you may think, "Yes, yes, so what?" You look a little different, but no big deal. The truth is that albinism can have devastating consequences, it's a condition that makes you look like you don't belong even within your own family. For a kid trying to figure life out, just imagine how that would feel.
Dr. Seria: Although it was difficult [00:05:00] growing up, my brother who is about 18 months younger than me also has albinism. We leaned on each other quite a bit all the way through school, really trying our best to be able to get through the moving, and also get through the schooling. I will say that if we didn't have each other, it would have been I think a lot more of a negative experience if I didn't have him as a partner going through. Most kids with albinism don't have anyone else in their family, usually, it's an individual [00:05:30] by themselves. I feel quite lucky to have been able to at least navigate those difficult roads with someone by my side.
Ellie: I think that that is very unique and incredible that you had each other. I'm curious how the African-American community treated you all, and if they accepted you the same as the rest of the community, or if there was actually some stigma there?
Dr. Seria: There was always this struggle of feeling as if I was being treated as if I was not Black enough, to where kids would [00:06:00] say things like, "You're not Black." I would have to say, "Well, yes, I am." "Well, is one of your parents White?" "No, neither of my parents are White, both of my parents are Black." "Well, are they your biological parents? Are you sure you're not adopted?" [laughs] Those kinds of things, and it would just go on and on and on. The other part is within the African-American community, there's this stigma of "talking White".
They call it proper English, you're not speaking with a slang, or anything like that, that [00:06:30] they'll say, "Well, not only are you White, but you're talking White." It would be difficult because not only am I Black African-American, with my mom being from Trinidad, and my dad is from Georgia, but I was brought up with a strong Black identity. Both of my parents are extremely strong advocates, not only for their children, but in their communities, and have been their entire lives. That identity of [00:07:00] being very strong and grounded in my Black identity, of course, made it to where I really wanted to connect with Black students, other Black kids in the community.
After repeatedly in some cases in some places that we lived being turned away, my brother and I, of course, then would start looking for places where people would accept us. That part would end up being us having White friends or Latinx friends, at that point [00:07:30] sometimes we would get made fun of for that too, that we're hanging out with those kids, but it was not for lack of trying to connect.
Ellie: Wow, when you tell me your story and all those facets, I just realized how much bullying, and internalized stress you were feeling from all angles. Especially with moving constantly that in itself could be really [00:08:00] traumatizing for some people. I'm curious, did this affect your mental health or your brothers, the combination of all of the bullying coming from different angles, and different towns, and different schools?
Dr. Seria: I would say, yes, it did. When you're in it, it's completely different than when you think back. Also, interestingly enough probably notwithstanding, both my brother and I went into psychology fields. [laughs] He's a psychologist, [00:08:30] and I'm a psychotherapist, both of us went all the way through to our PhD. It's interesting where when you look back on your life, you're like, "Is there a connection there?" The interesting thing is I think it would have been a lot worse. It sounds bad, and when I think about it, it was hard, it was an extremely difficult thing to go through. There were times that I absolutely, hated going to school, I didn't want to go to school.
The interesting thing is [00:09:00] I think because there were those times that I got to ride the bus to school with my brother, or I would get to see my brother at lunch if I was lucky enough to have the same lunch with him. Those were times that I looked forward to, he and I were extremely close. The other thing to note is that I was a lot younger than my peers too because I started school in New Mexico. They had this kind of law at the time that if a child could read and was potty [00:09:30] trained that they could start school. I started school in New Mexico when I was two and a half years old.
Dr. Seria: It was a very unique space where kids with disabilities, they often have opportunities to start an early childhood. They started me out, and my mom had been working with me with reading from the time that I was a little over a year old, with recognition, and I learned to talk early. When I turned three, I had finished a good [00:10:00] part of the kindergarten curriculum. I started first grade at four. What that translated to is really with my brother and I being 16 months apart, me age-wise, feeling a lot more closer to his friends than I felt to the kids that I was in the same grade with.
There was that additional piece not only the albinism but I think that that's important to also understand is I was, maturity-wise, at a different [00:10:30] state than other kids in my grade as well. Because of that, my brother and I would hang out a lot of times with friends that were in his grade. That I think was a good insulator to the mental anguish. Being able to have someone like a partner in the process.
Ellie: That is incredible. You have such a unique story [00:11:00]. The fact that your relationship with your brother and your family was really a safeguard in this crazy tumultuous time of upbringing and transition, that really led you to be resilient and your brother too. It sounds like you all have really continued to go forward in life and be achievers for sure, but also helpers and really giving back. Did your upbringing inform what you're doing now and why you're doing it?
Dr. Seria: 100%. [00:11:30] I had individuals in my educational career an art teacher when I was in Germany who told me I could be whatever I wanted to be but not only did he tell me that, he put the work in and supporting me and really working with me in which I not only fostered a love of art but also started winning awards as an artist. Then there was a school counsellor that I always remember when I moved to Nebraska in highschool who really believed that I had the educational chops to go onto college and to do [00:12:00] awesome things.
She was the one who recommended me to Midland University to which she actually applied for. I received a full-ride academic scholarship to Midland University. I always remember those two individuals and other individuals along the way because I think that it really denotes the power of an educator who truly believes and invests in kids. Especially at times [00:12:30] when kids may be going through so much emotional turmoil that they're not really able to invest in themselves, they're really just trying to survive at the time.
Those two individuals and like I said, there are others along the way that I connected with and provided me with that support, that strength, that motivation that really I think, informed what I wanted to do later on. I wanted to be that for someone. [00:13:00] I think that when I went into the university, I initially had started out wanting to go into the sciences and going to medicine. Unfortunately, at the university level, I ran into the same obstacles just like you ran into great people, you ran into individuals who really don't want to accommodate you or are trying to discourage you from moving forward.
That happened at the university. I did run into a professor [00:13:30] in the sciences who told me basically because of my vision that I would never make it in the field that I wanted to be in, and really not only discouraged me from moving forward but continue to find ways to provide roadblocks and helping me to move forward in what I needed to do.
I ended up getting out of the pre-med track which is what I was on wanting to go into the medical field. I switched at the time. It was like the mid part of my junior year [00:14:00]. The only major that I could go into and graduate within four years was business.
It was a temporary derailment but I ended up going back to school for counselling because I wanted to provide clinical mental health counselling in schools. That is what I started doing. Then went back for my PhD again because I wanted to be a professor and conduct research. The whole winding road of life, I believe, led me here. I have to credit [00:14:30] although it was a difficult road, as I said before, I always have to credit those people along the way because the power of an educator who believes in a kid is absolutely tremendous.
Ellie: Seria's winding road has led to a rich life full of meaning. After years of consulting with the State College Area School District in Pennsylvania, they created a director-level position for her as the Director of Equity and Inclusivity. [00:15:00] She also is an ardent professor at Penn State where she chairs the College of Education's Diversity and Community Enhancement Committee. In these roles, she fosters equal outcomes regardless of students backgrounds. To help us understand how she does this, Seria breaks down a few of the buzzwords we seem to constantly hear but not understand. Diversity, inclusion, and equity.
Dr. Seria: Diversity is really what [00:15:30] we're trying to attain by recruiting individuals that come from diverse perspectives but it's not really something that you can direct. Diversity is what makes up each individual. We each have diverse identities. Even if, for example, a person is white, they could be a white woman, there's a diverse identity from gender. Then also be a white woman, for example, with a disability, or a white woman from a lower socio-economic status background which also then [00:16:00] places you in intersectional identities of marginalization.
The key piece is that diversity is what people bring to the table. We're trying to recruit individuals who are bringing diversity to the table but it's not necessarily what you direct, it's what all of the things that make up the individuals that you are hiring. You want to hire individuals that typically may come from more marginalized or minoritized backgrounds in order to ensure that their voices are at the table [00:16:30] in all aspects of your organization.
What you really try to direct are outcomes and goals. That is equity. Equity is an outcome. It is wanting individuals to have equal outcomes regardless of their minoritized or marginalized backgrounds. You really have to understand inequity historical marginalization and the fact that, for example, through [00:17:00] humongous phenomenons like systemic racism, that individuals have not only be held back but in some ways, been completely crushed by a system that was made or created without them in mind.
When we think about equity, we really have to think about the ground that everyone is standing on because for some people, they're literally never started on solid ground, they started in a hole. I think that that's really [00:17:30] important to understand literally and figuratively if the individuals your ancestors came over here and when they came over here they were not even considered human.
When all of these wonderful things that happened in this country, the declaration of independence, the bill of rights, all of these wonderful milestones that happened in this country occurred without anyone who created those things thinking about your ancestors because at the time they "owned your ancestors" [00:18:00]. Your ancestors were a property. At the time, they were not even considered to be human.
When we think about equity, we have to think about all of those not only setbacks but current realities of marginalized groups and figuring out ways that we can direct "my terminology of who I am" direct ways for them to able to get equitable outcomes to other individuals who may not have experienced those [00:18:30] historical and concurrent forms of marginalization.
When we get to inclusion, inclusion is one of the methods that can be used as you're working towards equity. Inclusion means ensuring that all of the voices are not only at the table but in all aspects of your organization. That means, for example, and inclusion the definition of it really came from [00:19:00] the disability world because some time ago, any individual who had a disability could be removed from the general education classroom and put into what they called a self-contained classroom where they were completely removed from being able to get education or have educational opportunities alongside their peers that did not have disabilities.
Through the American Disabilities Act, disability advocates advocated for individuals with disabilities [00:19:30] at all cost by all means being included in general education classrooms. That's really where the terminology inclusion came from. The same thing happens with other individuals who have marginalized identities where they are "left outside of the room, or not brought in the room when the decisions or the educational opportunities are happening."
Inclusion is making sure the individuals are in the room. Diversity is really looking at the many different identities [00:20:00] that individuals hold and are bringing into an organization. Then equity is working to make sure that those individuals that are brought into the room and those individuals with diverse identities are able to attain equitable outcomes.
Ellie: Bringing this back into all of the many hats that you wear, one of your jobs is that you supervise counselors. You help train them to really become ethical great counselors in the field. You are guiding them [00:20:30] as they are examining their personal biases and really working with individuals and families and groups. How do you work with them to understand their biases and then also address these biases to be inclusive?
Dr. Seria: One of the key issues that we've had in the field of counseling for a long time is, whom gets help from whom? The important part about ethics also is when you are providing help for someone, what kind [00:21:00] of help are you providing? Are you ensuring that you're providing a non-judgmental environment? That's really where the biases really comes into play
The key piece about bias and the understanding or the way that we come to having conversations like this is, A, We start with counselors to let them know that we're all biased. One of the key pieces in bias [00:21:30] is to understand your socialization and how you even got to the place that you are. Many of us think that especially when we're adults, that we were always this way, that we always saw the world this way.
We were always oriented to the world this way. The key piece that it is helping counselors to understand, as well as helping people to understand overall is that all things, race is a social construct. Meaning that you were socialized into your understanding [00:22:00] of how the world interacts and reacts to you based on the race that the world assumes that you are.
I think that that's really important to understand because as a person with albinism, people will look at me and they try to place my race. It can be really difficult for them because of the color of my skin, they don't immediately go to placing me as black. Although I may navigate the world in my head as seeing the world as a black woman, it doesn't necessarily mean that [00:22:30] the world accepts me in that way as to what they feel a black woman should look like. There's a socialization process that happens there but there's also a socialization process that happens with gender as well.
Even the whole wearing of skirts and pants and all of those kinds of things are socialized. We socialize our children to the gender that they're assigned at birth before they even open their eyes through gender reveal parties. The key piece [00:23:00] is that when you understand the socialization of identity, you start to understand that there are some biological pieces of identity and then there are some socialization parts of identity. It is helping counselors to understand that it is not for you to tell your client how they see the world, it is for you to gain a deeper understanding of how your client sees the world. Then to gain a deeper understanding of what is healthy for them and what is [00:23:30] unhealthy for them.
That can only be guided through their eyes not yours. If we are really being non-judgmental in the way that we are approaching therapy and working with others, we really have to gain a deeper understanding of who we are because the more that you recognize that the way that you see the world is the way that you see the world and you also understand that that is your bias and that you are always biased, the more open you can be to hearing other individuals' perspectives [00:24:00] because you can help to accept that as the way that they see the world.
Then really start to see, okay, sometimes the way a person may see the world may be unhealthy because they may be discriminating. They may be treating people unfairly, they may be doing all of these things through the way that they were socialized. As you're able to work through your biases and understand them, you never get rid of them. They're always there and the best that you can do is just try your best to remain aware.
They're so unconscious at times [00:24:30] that sometimes it may take someone bringing it to your attention that one of your biases is at play. There's a term for that, a microaggression. I say that it's always going to happen. You just have to get used to bouncing back faster after it's brought to your attention
Ellie: The messy process of recognizing our biases and bouncing back to provide wisdom and love to others is hard but it is so worth it. How I see the world [00:25:00] is my bias. When one of my negative biases goes unnoticed, that's when I'm most in danger of committing microaggressions, that support systemic racism and inequality. Yes, it may sound daunting to examine these under the radar assumptions. Maybe it would be helpful to think of another word that describes this process. It's the process of vulnerability.
Dr. Seria: There is a huge amount [00:25:30] of vulnerability in equity work. I think that one of the key pieces why vulnerability is key especially for individuals who are leaders in the field in this, is because you cannot know all things about all aspects of diversity. Because even if you, for example, are a big expert in the area of race, there are so many intersections of identity.
Yes, you may be an expert in the area of race but then when race intersects with [00:26:00] LGBTQIA issues or when race intersects with gender or when race intersects with religion, for example, it creates whole new categories and whole new areas where individuals are discriminated against and feel even more and more marginalized. I think that one of the key pieces of that vulnerability is knowing the importance of learning from others and knowing that, hey, I'm going to make mistakes and it is okay. [00:26:30]
Not only is it okay, the key piece is knowing that my intent doesn't matter. That is one of the key things that I think people get caught up in which is a roadblock to vulnerability because they immediately say, "Well, how could you ever think that I intended to hurt you with what I said?" What I will typically say is, it doesn't matter what you intended, what matters is the impact.
What matters is that the person is hurt by what you said. [00:27:00] What you need to apologize for is the hurt. You need to say, "I am so sorry I hurt you," because when we focus on the intent, what happens is we will tend to get really defensive and it really will remove or place a barrier in front of our vulnerability because what really happens typically when we get caught in a microaggression, when we get caught in outright racism, in some cases, because this world unfortunately when we say systemic racism, [00:27:30] we live, breathe, swim in racism. Whether it be in the media that is shoved down our throats, now sometimes 24 hours cycles.
Beauty products and commercials. Just across the board, 78% of children's books still only contain white characters and children of color as the friend. We recognize that we live in a world that is hugely biased. It's nearly impossible for us to [00:28:00] navigate that space and not be biased ourselves. The other vulnerability and understanding that I had to come to as a woman of color, is how that racism that I'm drinking, eating and swimming in every day, how it manifests itself in me and in my children. I say that for in children of color, racism manifests itself in the form of internalized oppression to where children of color actually hate themselves.
They hate the color of their skin. Sometimes [00:28:30] they'll try to use products to lighten their skin. They'll try to use products to have hair, that is more white like. It's because of the way that drinking racism when you are the color that the world seems like it hates, how you start to hate yourself, and how you start to dislike yourself. It took that vulnerability and even understanding that for myself for me to understand how the world was also impacting me and my perspective [00:29:00] of myself. Also, the way that it can impact my children and other children of color that I'm a fierce advocate for.
Being vulnerable and learning about those things and understanding that your perspective is your perspective and understanding others' perspectives and being okay with when you're called out and making a mistake. Understanding that each mistake is a step toward you learning more about yourself and learning more about others. I think that [00:29:30] we could work toward making this a place in the United States, where conversations can happen because we both go into those conversations not knowing what to expect but hoping to leave the conversation knowing a little bit more about that person that we entered that conversation with.
Ellie: Thank you for bringing it back to that. Really, for me, even as [00:30:00] an interviewer, I feel really vulnerable on this topic because I recognize I am a white woman, my body is thin, I have a lot of privilege just in who I am walking around in this world and I recognize how hard it is for me to be vulnerable and recognize when I make a microaggression and how to bring up those conversations because it's easier sometimes to avoid out of my own discomfort.
Recognizing that I do have these biases, I do want to work on them but that I can actually feel shame [00:30:30] for having them. As we talk about it, this is really good practice for me and recognizing that none of us are going to get it right but having the conversation is so key. Seria, am grateful for your personal story and also how much you have brought to the table and educating each of us and really giving us the tools just to know how to talk about it, and that we're not going to be perfect. We can be vulnerable and we can say I'm sorry. With that being said, just coming back to your personal story, [00:31:00] fully informs you and who you are and what your mission is and what your job is in this world. If you had to put a few sentences to it, what is your personal mission?
Dr. Seria: My personal mission I'll tell you it changes on a regular basis because as I learn more, I want to do more, I want to know more, I want to be more. I feel like I'm constantly on this journey to help to bring people together, to learn [00:31:30] how to have these kinds of difficult conversations. A lot of my training, a lot of my work has often been-- I always say, let my pitfalls be your bridges which means, areas that I may have stumbled in the past, I really try to work to help youth to be able to walk over those things because I truly do not believe, I've never guided my life in understanding that bullying is a rite of passage.
I always say that if bullying is a [00:32:00] rite of passage and between 10% to 20% of kids experience bullying in their life significant bullying, then how do those other 80% to 90% make it to adulthood without it? [laughs] If it is truly a rite of passage that we all have to go through, then why is it that some are able to navigate life and not have to experience severe forms of bullying. I think that my mission in life is really to ensure that I am able to help or be a guide [00:32:30] in helping youth especially to have smoother paths to the realization of the wonderful and awesome human beings that they are.
I have a program in the district and it's called the Social Justice Summer Institute and it's a summer program, a week-long, intensive program teaching youth about social justice and then it links to a year-long servant leadership program called the Peer Advocates Program, [00:33:00] where youth in our district are able to not only learn more about social justice but they're able to lead discussions in their school, they're able to develop their own projects and I help to support them in the development and launching of those projects.
Through this program, I've really been able to see one of my missions come to fruition. It is just so interesting that if we provide youth with the truth, we provide them with history as it happened, [00:33:30] we don't sugarcoat it, we talk to them about racism, we talk to them about sexism and heterosexism, we talk to them about historical events and we talk to them about the perspectives of marginalized individuals in historical events. It's amazing to see how youth take that information. Some of them are running with it a lot faster than the program leaders are able to keep up with them. [laughs] That's my mission.
I think that we each [00:34:00] have our own calling and we each, within our little corner of the world, should be doing as much as we can for as long as we can with as many as we can because I think that just like that school counselor changed my life and showed me how important it is, for every person that can and has time to believe in children because I really believe that youth are our future. I'm going to do as much as I can for as long as I can [00:34:30] with as many as I can until I can't do it anymore.
Ellie: Thank you, and thank you for sharing your personal story of resilience as well. I think that is just so beautiful and impactful and really just brings more color into the work you're doing. Thank you so much, Dr. Chatters and more than anything, thank you. Thank you for teaching me, thank you for teaching our audience, and for doing the hard work that you're doing.
Dr. Seria: Thank you so much for your time.
Ellie: If you're intrigued to learn more from Dr. Chatters like I am, [00:35:00] please join me for the 12th Annual ERF Conference on Mental Health, where you can hear Dr. Chatters share as part of the diversity panel. Additionally, the conference will feature dr Charlene Small, and Dr. Mazella Fuller as they address the unique treatment needs of black women with eating disorders, as well as dozens of other leaders in the fields of weight, stigma, bullying, and suicide prevention. This virtual conference is held September 11th and 12th and mental health professionals can earn up to 34 continuing [00:35:30] education credits.
To learn more, simply click on the link in our show notes or visit erfcon2020.com. Once again, erfcon2020.com. Take advantage of a reduced rate by signing up now, I hope to see you there. Thanks for listening to Mental Note Podcast. Our show is brought to you by Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Behavioral Health Centers. You could reach a trained therapist to see if treatment is right for you by calling [00:36:00] 877-411-9578. Learn more about the people we interview @mentalnotepodcast.com. We'd also love it if you left us a review on iTunes. It really helps others find our podcast. Mental Note is produced and hosted by me Ellie Pike, directed by Sam Pike and edited by Josh Wright. Till next.
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