by Jennifer Lambert
Several years ago, I came across a widely shared letter written to Dear Abby, the famed advice columnist, from a group of sisters and sisters-in-law who were seeking an answer about how to deal with one of the sisters-in-law. The letter stated that the women in the family went on a vacation together each year, but one of the sisters-in-law, in their words, was just too different from everyone else, which made things awkward at times. Their solution to the sister-in-law problem was to just not include her – to take a vacation that included all the women in the family except her. Dear Abby had many things to say to this group of women, but the gist of her response was that these sisters needed to lean into their discomfort and do what they could to be more inclusive.
Most of us would probably have the same reaction that Dear Abby had because we all know what it’s like not to be invited to sit with the cool kids at lunch. We’ve all felt different or “othered” at some point in our lives, but many times we’re not aware when we’re the ones doing the othering and excluding those in our own community. How can we become more inclusive?
Our differences are what makes our community strong. Imagine you’re organizing a potluck (in pre-pandemic times, of course), but you only invite people that always make funeral potatoes. Funeral potatoes are good, but have you ever tried that pretzel jello dessert or frog eye salad? When you only include those that always bring the same thing to the table, others that have differing ideas and opinions don’t feel comfortable joining. We limit our resources when we stick to what we know and are comfortable with.
In order to be more inclusive, we need to take the time to get to know each other. We can ask sincere questions, listen to understand and avoid making assumptions and judgements about others. When we’re curious about those who are different from us, and try getting to know them with an open mind and a goal to make them feel acknowledged and valued, we’re opening ourselves and our community up for growth.
Sometimes this growth can be painful because it causes us to acknowledge our own unconscious biases. We can identify these biases within us and work toward eliminating them. As we do this, we will change how we think of, speak to and treat others who are different from us. It’s a process, but it’s not an unachievable goal. Mother Theresa, the wise woman that she was, said, “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot. Together we can do great things.”
Jennifer Lambert is a writer, a PTO president, a mom and a wife. She’s never met a cheese she didn’t like and doesn’t let a little lactose intolerance get in the way of achieving her dreams. Although not a native of Provo she considers it her home now, having been welcomed with open arms and ranch dressing from the BYU Creamery.
by Abraham Hernandez
Someone once said, “kindness leads to understanding.” While we may not always agree with each other on diverse topics, we all know what it is like to be human and to struggle. It is through this shared human experience and our differences that help us come together as a community. We sometimes think that an act of kindness has to be grand and time consuming, but it is really the little things that make the biggest impact.
I have called Provo home for 25 years, and in that time, I have witness kindness all around me. This is not to say we don’t have miles to go to show all of our communities that make up Provo kindness, but there are definitely folks that have done their part.
The woman who comes out of a grocery store and hands a homeless person a bag a food, the man that pays for someone’s meal, the teenager that grabs something from a top shelf for someone, the little kid that opens the door for someone—these are examples of small acts of kindness that tend to go unnoticed.
I remember reading a story online where someone shared an experience of being in a check-out line at a store and having this feeling that they needed to say hello to the person in front of them. They said hello and asked how they were to which the elderly man in front of them responded, “I’m great. It’s my birthday.” They wished the elderly man a happy birthday and that was the end of the exchange. For some reason we have become scared to talk to each other, but a simple hello or smile can make a big impact in someone’s day.
There are folks in our community that donated their stimulus checks to help families that have struggled during this global pandemic, face masks have been made and donated to communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and donated winter gear to low-incomes families to stay warm.
As a member of this community, I have seen many examples of kindness, but I am also aware that there are community members that have not been shown this same kindness for a variety of reasons. I know that we can do better.
I would challenge everyone to post on social media every time someone shows a small act of kindness towards you, your family, or your community. Let’s spread positivity and create a more unified community in 2021!
Abraham has called Provo home for many years and is fully invested in creating a space where everyone is heard and involved within the community. He attend Provo City School District, worked for the District, and now works with the District as part of their Diversity & Equity Community Council. Abraham has a degree in Communication, and is currently working on a second degree in English Literature. He loves his community and wants to see it thrive.
By Mary James
I totally get it. I used to arrive at work really angry every morning and thought I was having a mini stroke every time someone cut me off. I blamed them for making me late, had all sorts of ugly conversations in my head about how awful a person they must be, etc. and then one day I realized I was being manipulated to feel this way.
I think we are all a little too concerned with fairness. Or at least we want to make sure no one gets more than his fair share- yet we feel victorious when we do. All the while we tell our children- “Life’s not fair, get used to it.”
It’s like a grudge we hold with society. Every time things aren’t fair for us fuels those road rage and other bad decisions.
I got too angry every time I lost at this game, and I lost a lot. So I decided I would be the person to grant mercy to another, and make them the winner- just to show the game that it wasn’t in control- I was. And a funny thing happened: I started feeling happy for others. I stopped worrying so much about my wins and found another way to win.
So heck with fairness for everyone! I support mercy for all, and I celebrate others’ wins as mine. I try to mess with the system at least once or twice a day.
Can you imagine if everyone did this? Now I’m happier, and I still get to my destination just as fast as I always did.
I’m hoping to re-engineer this game with people who are tired of feeling angry too. Let’s mess with the system, and see if we don’t become happier while we make others happy at the same time.
Mary Allison James is a small town girl from Southern Arizona, but has resided in the Provo Area since 2001. She is married and has 5 grown children, and two grandchildren. An educator for 28 years, she is an assistant principal at Provo High School, but still finds time to help operate her family businesses of a small farm and cattle company, and an equestrian facility. Additionally, Mary loves to write, paint, and garden, but has diverted her energies to finishing her Doctorate of Educational Leadership at the University of Arizona. Mary's professional passion is in helping underprivileged children achieve, and hopes to someday publish her research on the topic.
By Janae Moss
I remember walking through the doors of South Davis Junior High school at the beginning of my seventh-grade year.
I was wearing my favorite blue sweater that I ordered from the JCPenney catalog, and I was excited about my carefully applied pink and blue L’Oreal eyeshadow. My permed hair and ratted bangs were frozen into the perfect 80’s shape with my Aqua Net hairspray -- the same bangs that caught a fly during ballet lessons earlier that year. (Through desperate swats, I set the insect free before anyone knew, until now.)
On picture day, I awkwardly sat on an old wooden stool. The photographer looked straight into my face and barked, “Stop frowning and smile for the camera!” I was forcing my Lip Smackers lips over my shiny new braces, which created an uncomfortable image to behold. I looked around and wondered how all of the other girls were perfectly confident.
I was trying desperately to be accepted. But what I really wanted was to belong.
Many years later, having raised six daughters, I can confidently say that none of the girls in junior high felt perfectly confident, and my decision to roll and peg my acid-washed jeans might have earned me some approval, but it was never going to make me feel like I belonged.
The details change when we are adults, but the story is the same.
Our deepest need is to belong. We join clubs, read bestsellers, hop on social media threads, we even reject other people or ideas to feel like we are a part of a group.
Belonging is fundamental to us. Have you ever felt unwelcome or excluded? At school, or at work, or in your own family? It’s excruciating to bear. On the flip side, are there places where you feel that you do belong? Think of what that place looks like, what it sounds or smells or tastes like, what you do there. Let yourself feel the sense of safety and satisfaction that come from belonging.
This sensation is very different from acceptance, or fitting in. It’s different from being appreciated. At the very heart of “belonging” is the word “long.” To be-long to something is to stay with it for the long haul. It is an active choice we make to a relationship, to a place, to our body, to life because we value it.
When you can count on that sense of belonging, and when you know how to create it, your life changes. Your community changes.
I regularly train groups on social connections and building relationships. One of the main points we cover is how to genuinely welcome and listen to people. Magic happens when people take the time to sit across from one another (or on Zoom) and connect. When someone feels overlooked or like attention is conditional on “fitting in,” they will not open up and build a substantial connection. But with sincere listening, when you take the time to understand another person’s world and are curious about them, a genuine bond begins to form.
When we consciously tear down the invisible walls of judgment, people don’t just get to know one another. Listening across differences with openness and curiosity means that people can feel comfortable and safe. Their strengths and talents can peek out. They begin to grow into their potential as co-workers, parents, friends, volunteers, students, employees, teammates. Our community becomes stronger because we see and affirm people for who they are.
And, trust me, there will be differences. We celebrate and worship differently. We raise our families differently. We have different levels of education. We have different languages. We have different ways life has been rough on us. We respond differently to major national issues.
Differences are normal. Our power lies in not letting them separate us into small, fragile, and fearful silos. To combat that fear, we must take the simple actions of belonging upon ourselves. Those actions let us connect so that we are better across our communities, across our city.
Strangely enough, the choice to build belonging is an individual choice. We can’t control how others treat us. We can only choose how we will treat others. So let’s start there. 2020 has been a year of unbearable loneliness and isolation, from schoolkids who can’t see their friends for months to restaurant workers who can’t serve the patrons they love. Let each of us practice belonging — learning how to listen with genuine curiosity — so that we come through with strength, together.
We don’t need ratted bangs and Aqua Net to find our way to belonging (though it would be hilarious to recreate that look). Start with one friend, one acquaintance, one person, and listen to what they have to say.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, I didn’t make the cheerleading team - not by a long shot. Thank goodness “Mindy” still thought I was “cool” and thought, “next year will be great!”
Janae Moss is the mother of seven, grandmother of four, co-owner of multiple businesses, family advocate, and community organizer. She is the co-founder of Parents Driving Change, and its umbrella organization, Humans Driving Change. PDC encourages parents to use their innate ability to lead, by sharing their experiences with the organizations that support them. She and her husband, Jon, have built several businesses, including their flagship RBM Building Maintenance. She has a BA in Integrated Studies, with an emphasis in Psychology and Leadership, and is earning a Master’s in Performance Psychology.
By Sean Edwards
I love driving into Provo and seeing “Welcome Home” upon entering city limits. I moved to Provo in 2006 to attend college at BYU. Immediately, Provo became my home. I remember preparing for graduation and thinking, “Where do I want to move?” With my career as an educator, I could literally go anywhere. But, everywhere I wanted to be and build my life was right here in Provo. Provo is home.
We have three high schools in Provo including Provo, Timpview, and Independence. I have been so fortunate to have the opportunity to work as a teacher and administrator in Provo City School District. In 2017, I learned the true meaning of “Welcome Home”.
Laura (pseudonym), a 16-year-old junior (11th grade), approached me one day and expressed that our school needed to be more intentional about how we approach new students at the school. She shared ideas about how she wanted to see each new student receive a personal welcome upon enrolling at the school. Although Laura was involved in multiple athletic programs, Student Government, advanced courses, and more, she kindly offered to lead this inclusivity initiative. Laura designed an incredible system where each week, she would get a list of all new students. Then, she scheduled a time to meet with the student. She introduced herself to the new student as their friend and showed them around the school. She let the student know important tips for “how to do school” such as following the school’s Instagram and provided a list of different clubs and activities to get involved in. She also put together a “welcome bag” for students which included a drawstring bag, school supplies, a school shirt, important documents (maps, contact information, etc.), and other school swag (lanyard, flashlight keychain, etc.). Every new student I talked to was so appreciative of the warm welcome Laura provided them.
Laura continued this through her senior (12th grade) year and enlisted more people to help her, forming a New Student Welcome Committee. Now, our new student welcome program has transformed to be a larger part of our school-wide outreach efforts. This all happened because one person had the vision to improve kindness within our school’s culture.
I am so grateful to Laura for teaching me what “welcome home” truly means. “Welcome home” is more than just a physical sign. “Welcome home” is embodied by kind individuals that are intentional and deliberate about letting you know that you belong here, you have a place with us, your contribution is needed, and because of your differences, we need you.
As you seek to apply a “welcome home” mindset, consider the following reflective questions:
1. Who are the individuals or groups that I can show kindness and be welcoming towards?
2. Who in my community needs to feel welcomed the most?
3. What does being welcoming look like in authentic and genuine ways?
4. How will I remind myself to be welcoming?
5. What are my motives for being kind and welcoming?
6. Who else can I invite to have a “welcome home” perspective? How can I partner with others?
Sean Edwards is currently in his fourth year as an Assistant Principal at Timpview High School. Prior to his administrative assignment, he was an instructional coach and special education teacher. He is also in his second year in a doctorate program at The University of Utah. Sean enjoys being around friends and family (cousin game nights!), traveling, spending time with his husband, and eating a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream every night. :)
By Becca Kearle
In the past week, I have done two different national media interviews because I voted differently than my parents in the past election. In the time leading up to and immediately after the elections we were in constant conversation about our concerns, our hopes, and which way we were leaning in the presidential race. The journalists talking to us were a combination of amused, intrigued, and baffled by this close relationship that allowed for dialogue and respect in the face of political differences. Somehow, in our culture and in our politics, the idea of difference has been reduced to divisiveness rather than variety. We attach differences or try to avoid them and often make assumptions about others based on what we perceive as differences.
In my work, I engage communities across the country in exploring meaningful conversations across differences. One of the most powerful ways to combat confirmation bias and increase understanding and trust is simply to listen and talk to each other and 2020 has given us a lot of material to work with!
What meaningful conversation do you wish you could have right now? Who would you want to have it with?
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the train-wreck scenario of talking politics with relatives over the holidays. No matter what your holiday gatherings look like (in person or online), there are things you can do to have better conversations. These are some of the guideposts I use at work as well as in my personal life: (1) Be curious and listen to understand, (2) Show respect and suspend judgment, (3) Note any common ground as well as any differences, and (4) Be authentic and welcome that from others. With those elements in place you can lead out and talk about how this year has been for you and ask others what their experiences have been. You can have a “conversation potluck” and invite guests to bring a question they want to discuss. The only rules are that it can’t be a yes/no question or one that will get you focused on opinions rather than experiences (you don’t want to get caught up in fact checking).
The relationship I have with my parents is based in mutual respect and trust. It allows us to disagree, because I know who they are at their core. It allows us to ask each other real questions without any of us feeling threatened or attacked. We don’t necessarily change our minds often, but we do allow our positions and ideas to become more complex. One of the experiences we shared with the reporters was the shift we had around immigration. I grew up in Maine where I didn’t really think about immigration at all. My mom grew up in southern California where immigration was everywhere. It wasn’t until my sister married her undocumented husband that I was able to tether a human life to the ideas and policies around immigration. I listened to his story about crossing the border with a coyote as a minor and it challenged my assumptions around who comes to this country and why. (I also recognize that his is one of many stories that illustrate many different aspects of immigration.) Through all my many conversations, I have realized that fear thrives in a one-dimensional, simplified version of life. When we open ourselves to understanding difference and connecting with each other through conversation, we can enjoy humanity in all its complicated vivacity. This is the essence of kindness to me-- to sit with someone else, to really see and hear them.
This year I am giving thanks for the beautiful diversity of our experiences. I believe in the power of communities. I believe that our shared humanity is stronger than our religious, political, or ideological differences. I also believe and have witnessed how our community can be strengthened when we see and hear each other.
** I have developed free PDF “conversation menus” that I invite you to use. There’s also a Friends and Family Conversation Tip Sheet PDF you may find helpful.
Becca Kearl is involved in numerous local non-profit endeavors and is a founding member of the Utah Dialogue Practice Network. As a Managing Partner at Living Room Conversations, she believes in the power of dialogue around difficult topics to strengthen communities locally and nationally. She is also fully engaged in the non-profit effort of raising 5 kids.
by Fred Axelgard
When I was a little boy, about age 4, we lived in Taiwan. I attended a Chinese-language pre-school, and one of my favorite things to do was to help raise the Taiwanese flag as the school day began. I understood very little of the language, and really had no idea what the flag-raising meant. But the memory of it is important to me. I can look back and see myself as a small child surrounded by other small children who were different from me, at a very happy time in my life.
A few years later, my family traveled to Jerusalem. This was the early 1960’s, and Jerusalem was a divided city. I remember standing on the street in front of our hotel in Arab East Jerusalem, and meeting a young Palestinian boy. He was about my height, with dark hair and dark eyes. Again, I did not speak his language and I never saw him again, but somehow that little boy has stayed with me. The thought that has stayed in my mind, alongside the memory of his face, is that whatever I would encounter in my life somehow had to take account of his life. I knew we would have very different lives, but that did not matter. Existence would not make sense to me unless it meant that his life was as important to God as mine.
One more experience. Many years later, I found myself in a bus going across the Sinai Peninsula. Around me were peace negotiators from Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and a dozen other countries. We had arranged to visit an installation that was set up to monitor the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in the hope that this would show these negotiators how Arab-Israeli peace could be achieved and maintained. I remember very well an Egyptian general saying very slowly how much he hoped that his children and grandchildren would grow up in a region at peace. The thought I have kept next to this memory is how deeply he felt this hope. He breathed it out from deep inside.
What do these experiences have to do with kindness in Provo? I have found, somewhat surprisingly, that Provo is a very international city. Many many people here have had their own experiences in other countries, among other cultures. These experiences have shaped them and, consequently, they have shaped the community that we have become and are still becoming. Difference acknowledged, difference accepted, difference appreciated, difference emulated: these dynamics are at the heart of who we are as a community. Think of them as never-ending processes, as predictable and refreshing as the breeze that blows down out of Provo Canyon every morning. We are changing every day, we are encountering differences every day, and we are being shaped by these differences – yes, every day.
So the thought I’d like to leave is that we have the ability to open up and be attuned to the differences we see in the people around us. These differences might be racial, ethnic, linguistic, socio-economic, political, or educational in nature. Let these differences and these people remind us of experiences from the past, and the many different pathways that have led to us becoming who we are. Perhaps like me, you’ll be reminded of promises that you made to yourself long ago, about the people you wanted to remember and the way you wanted to live your life. And then think about the place you would like Provo to become.
Fred Axelgard’s father was a global dairyman from Carbon County. Fred played Little League baseball in Iran, Greece, Turkey, Belgium, and Utah. After many years in the Washington DC area, he and Robyn moved to Utah County in 2013. They have five children and fifteen grandchildren.
By Meradith Christensen
Some of the best relationship advice I’ve ever received was when a friend reposted the following blurb:
“The same energy that creates the side of someone that you love, is frequently also responsible for the side that drives you crazy. You thus shouldn’t pine for an impossible scenario where you can retain that which you adore and excise the part you do not; you can’t pick up one end of the stick, without picking up the other! Once you recognize that someone’s ‘flaws’ are just a different manifestation of the same energy in them that you love, these faults become easier to accept.” - Brett and Kate McKay, How to Accept Your Partner’s Flaws, Art of Manliness blog
Suddenly, everything made so much sense to me. I absolutely love how principled my husband is-- he is such a loyal and honest person. But he views punctuality with the same fervor whether he’s attending a meeting with the Queen of England or a neighborhood barbecue and I myself don’t like to be part of the official greeting crew unless I’m formally invited to the assignment. I like to arrive *right on time*, not long beforehand-- which of course, is “late” in his book.
I totally love and admire how structured and focused he is -- it’s a part of what’s given him such incredible work ethic and has made him a productive human being, but when we were first married and vacationing, I wanted to lay around the pool all day. You can imagine how it really rustled my feathers to find that I’d married a madman who’d scheduled each day to the brim with outings to hike, repel and site see. (You’ll be relieved to know we’ve since figured out how to accomplish both activity and relaxation.)
He loves my natural empathy for others but sometimes in parenting, conflicts have arisen because he thinks I’m too much of a softy and prefers that I be more rigid with consequences. He loves and admires my convictions and my passion for standing up for what I believe in... unless of course, it’s over something he doesn’t feel the same about and thinks is a waste of time to get all worked up over. Then he (wrongfully!) calls my convictions ‘stubbornness’ instead.
We are in so many ways polar opposites. And we are no relationship experts by any means, but I’m realizing after fourteen years of marriage (I know--still baby ferns in this thing!) and five children that there’s a real beauty in walking this road of life with him at my side because his strengths -- the attributes that he possesses that are different from my own -- are helping to mold me into a better and more complete person. I know that my strengths are doing the same for him. And perhaps, more importantly, it is more of an understanding through experience that by putting both of our strengths to work together versus trying to make the other more like ourselves, we have the potential to create a real powerhouse.
Obviously, there are much weightier topics in marriage than punctuality or how to spend our time on family vacations, but my point is this: This principle applies to all relationships with our fellow human beings.
What if we could somehow extend this idea beyond our romantic relationships and close friendships? What if we could somehow extend this to all others? Are we slapping the label of “flaw” onto attributes we simply have a hard time relating to? Things that make another different from us? An approach to solving a problem that’s nowhere near the approach we would take? A way of thinking that feels foreign and unfamiliar and oftentimes threatening?
What if we could rewire our minds to look at differences, or what we might too easily label to be “flaws” in others, as exciting and fascinating? Instead of feeling threatened by differences -- which almost always reflects our own insecurities -- what if we could view them as an opportunity to learn and grow from another? What if we could recognize and more importantly fully embrace the idea that combining and celebrating our different strengths with others’ has potential to create a real “powerhouse” society? Do we allow ourselves to see the strength in diversity as a whole and individually and understand how it makes us better than we ever could have been on our own? How it helps us to become more complete and well-rounded humans?
In our modern world, we as humankind have never had such effortless access to so many differing viewpoints in history. Do we see this as a curse or an opportunity? Ask yourself:
When was the time I talked to or engaged online with someone I disagreed with on a given topic? What was my objective in that conversation? Was my intention to prove that I’m “right” or to assert my opinion? Was it to try to persuade them to see things my way?
Try the following little experiment: The next time you disagree with someone just pause. Don’t assert your opinion at all but simply ask questions in an effort to better understand the perspective. Why does this person see things the way they do? What are they hoping to see accomplished as a result of their beliefs? What principles are at the root of this person’s beliefs? What can you find that is admirable in these principles?
If you are willing, share your experience with this experiment. Were you able to appreciate a different perspective? How did you feel after the conversation?
Do we honestly feel it a coincidence that by divine design, no two snowflakes are the same? That each star of billions of stars in the sky is unique? How can we grow in appreciation for others' differences? As the American author Audre Lorde said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” It’s time to consciously rise above that which separates us and embrace and celebrate the power of our differences.
Meradith Christensen is a Provo resident for the past 15 years and is a wife and mother to four daughters and one son, ages 3-12. She graduated with a BA degree in Spanish and is a soon-to-be certified yoga instructor. Meradith loves to travel the world, loves meeting new people, and has a special flair for Latin America. She loves to sing, write, cook, tell stories, dance, impromptu Riverdance, and thinks her jokes are the funniest of all jokes.
By Jennifer Partridge
Four years ago, my freshman came home from school one September day and proclaimed that we needed to host an exchange student. What? This had never crossed our minds! The Exchange Student Coordinator had come into his Spanish class and shown a picture of a girl from Spain who was already here in Provo but still needed a host family. Mar joined our family a couple of weeks later and we had an amazing school year together. She learned about Utah’s love for ice cream and the beauty of our National Parks. We learned that in her region of Spain they speak Catalan more than Spanish and celebrate Christmas with Tio, a log that “poops” presents!
We enjoyed having Mar in our home so much that we have since hosted two other exchange students. One of the many things I love about welcoming students from other countries into our home is the opportunity we have had to learn from each of them. Each of our new “daughters” has come from different cultures, family situations, and with their own unique personalities and perspectives. Our family has learned firsthand that when you make the effort to get to know someone of a different background, your whole world expands. We have learned from them, and they from us. We have not always agreed, but we have found joy in learning new perspectives and focusing on the many things we can build upon.
When Mar returned to visit us last summer, I just had to ask her about her new tattoo. As you can see in this picture, it has two eyes, with a 6 in the middle. Or is it a 9? When Mar’s arm is down and you are standing behind her, it is a 9. When she bends her elbow to put her hand near her mouth and you are in front of her, it is a 6. She designed this tattoo to show that two people can look at the same thing and see it differently -- it all depends on your perspective. You say it’s a 9 and I say it’s a 6. Neither of us is incorrect. I love this message! Every individual has a unique perspective, made from their own particular life experiences. My perspective is not any more “right” than yours. When we stop trying to be right and start trying to understand other viewpoints, our lives are enhanced with more joy, fulfillment, and connection.
How can we learn better from one another? How can we recognize that our perspective is not the only one? Just like with our exchange students, it takes a willingness and desire to step outside of ourselves. Our students who had the best experience here were those who were the most open to trying new adventures, meeting new people, and learning all they could about this new environment. Instead of sitting in their bedroom, connecting only to the friends and family back home that they were comfortable with, they took a chance and made the effort to expand their horizons.
This same principle applies to each of us in our own communities. We are surrounded by such a beautiful variety of people. Sometimes that diversity is noticeable, with people from different cultural or religious backgrounds, for example. Other times, the variety is less obvious. We can approach our neighbors, literally and figuratively, with love in our hearts and with the desire to truly know and understand them. Everyone has a story to tell. As you sincerely listen, what you learn will add to your own story and enhance your perspective.
Jennifer Partridge is a wife and mom to 3 boys and 1 girl, ages 11-18. She also loves being the “American Mom” to three exchange student daughters, who she keeps in touch with regularly. Jennifer currently serves on the Provo School District Board of Education and helped bring the kindness initiative to our schools six years ago when she was serving as the district PTA president. She loves chocolate, Disneyland, date nights at all of the amazing Provo restaurants, working out, and traveling.
by Bryan G. Hopkins
"Don't make me pull this car over!" Many of us have said this or have heard it from a parent on the verge of a nervous breakdown while driving with squabbling children.
I remember wanting to stuff my ears with road maps back in the ancient days when I was a young father and we used paper maps. I disliked hearing my children shouting at each other like a murder of crows fighting over roadkill. (Yes, a group of crows is called a murder.) Their opinion was the only thing rising in their consciousness in those moments. There was little care for the comfort or opinions of the siblings sitting next to them. Each felt they were right and that nothing else mattered.
If this sounds familiar to any of you, maybe you, like me, have witnessed such squabbling, and not just in the family boat, (a term of mocking endearment bestowed on our Dodge van by our teens). You might also have noticed such conflict on social media, at home, at work—especially as we talk social issues, religion, politics, etc. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . I've been guilty of this, despite being a "mature" adult. Maybe you have too?
In my work, I especially strive to avoid bias. I'm a scientist. Part of the scientific method is to establish a hypothesis—a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. Frequently in our research, we find that our hypotheses are not correct or are only partially correct. This is more common than not.
My students are frequently disappointed in their research findings when this happens—as if somehow they have failed and all is lost in the pursuit of their degree. I remind them that this is why we're doing research. We are searching for truth, regardless of where it might lead us. I also warn them of the dangers of being biased and forming firm opinions before knowing the truth. This danger is real for all of us—scientists or not.
I'll relate a story of bias regarding a friend—I'll call him Clay Tiller to protect his true identity and because I thought that this reference to a type of soil and tillage is punny (I can just feel the eye rolls as I write this :)).
Clay owned a successful, large farm—built up out of the sagebrush by his ancestors. To say it came through "blood, sweat, and tears" is an understatement.
Clay had a friend who approached him with a new product that he said would "revolutionize" farming. Clay trusted this man, who believed strongly and sincerely in his product. The product seemed appealing because it promised that a small amount could replace much of his expensive fertilizer and pesticide inputs. Although he had some misgivings, he agreed to give it a try on half of one field as a test in place of the traditional products and practices he used on the other half and the rest of the farm.
At harvest, to his surprise, the portion of the field where the new product was used yielded ten sacks higher than the traditional side. (Those of us that did not grow up with smartphones and, instead, had gunny sack races will relate to a “sack” as a burlap bag that holds 100 lbs of potatoes or a leg from each of two people . . . young people may need to do an internet search for “gunny sack races” if you have no idea what I’m saying :)).
He was ecstatic! More gunnies of “taters” with less expense and work. He quickly abandoned his proven practices to use this miraculous tonic on the whole farm. In fact, Clay bought a distributorship of this product and began brewing and selling it to his family, friends, neighbors, and any other farmer who would listen.
The next season, to his dismay, things did not look quite as good. He lost money, especially on the half field that was now in its second year of having this product applied. However, he was so invested in his notions that he sought explanations of justification rather than having an open mind and listening to his wife, his crop consultant, and several others (including myself) urging a course correction or, at least, some caution. Conversations with him and others devolved into arguments. The more he argued, the more he became entrenched in his position. The next year was even worse, with massive nutrient deficiencies, plagues of pests, and poor yielding crops. By year five, he had lost the farm and every other physical and monetary asset.
What happened? I knew (and tried to explain to him early on) that he had not followed the proper procedures of the scientific method in his “experiment”. The reason the crop looked so good the first year was that the plants relied on a surplus of nutrients built up from previous over applications of fertilizer. Also, the pest pressure was low in that half-field trial the first year due to a combination of being surrounded by other fields where pests were controlled, as well the fact that pests come in cycles—with some years better than others. That first year happened to be a low pest pressure year.
Clay was tripped up by poor decisions and then deceived by his bias. He was set so firmly in his opinion because he drew conclusions too quickly and became entrenched in his ego so deeply that he lost his ability to have an open mind. He had put his good name on the line as he touted the benefits of this new breakthrough product that seemed to defy the laws of nature (such as, if you remove nutrients from the soil, you have to replenish them or you risk destroying the soil).
It's easy for us, with the near-perfect vision of hindsight, to see his folly. However, what about us? What is our bias? I certainly have to do battle and keep constantly aware of my own bias. This is true in science, but also in every other area of life, including products and services we purchase, social issues, politics, and so forth. And, the more we entrench ourselves through digital or verbal shouting matches the less likely we are to have an open mind.
In the history of mini-vans, has a screaming child ever successfully argued their position to an equally shrill sibling? It's easy for an adult to see their folly, but why do we act similarly on social media and in other interactions?
Too many of us are loudly advocating our position to the point that we cannot listen to our own good judgment trying to whisper truths to our minds and hearts. Are we so busy childishly screaming our perspective that we cannot hear the wisdom of others—even if we are entirely or partially correct? Are we part of a murder of crows cawing relentlessly? Possibly, we need to set aside our bias, listen a little more, and shout a little less.
Bryan Hopkins and his wife Carrie raised six children and are longtime residents of Provo. He is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist and a Plant and Wildlife Sciences Professor at Brigham Young University . His hobbies include gardening and traveling (without shouting children).