Dr. Anita Foeman

on Diversity

In her course on intercultural communications, Anita Foeman is videotaping a student who's expressing the connection he felt when he read an article on specific behaviors in Irish culture. The son of an Irish mother and an Italian father, the student saw that the voluntary video session would be a good way to document his and his family's experiences.

Foeman, who has taught this course for 15 years, believes that students like the young Irish/Italian man – and most people, for that matter - are willing to share their stories because, "they are longing to be known, to feel that someone cares about them and about their story. "The videos," she says, "bring their peers to them in a personal way."

She also believes studies in intercultural communication are important because students need to understand they can tolerate someone they don't like and learn to appreciate some differences that once challenged them.

"There isn't a need to agree with another's perspective, but the other person has a right to believe or feel they way they do," she says. "And if we see an injustice in another's behavior, we can address that too."

"Increasingly, we have to face differences as we expand and our society becomes more global." Not all the differences between people are visible, however.

As Foeman points out, diversity not only involves cultural differences such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, but also social cliques, physical impairments, developmental disabilities, subtleties of mixed races, height, weight, wealth, those who have technology and those who don't, and much more.

"Diversity is not simply celebrating differences while agreeing that we're all the same at the core," she says. "It is truly engaging on another and doing the hard work of learning to live together."

To illustrate the often subtle aspects of diversity, Foeman uses an activity called the "privilege line." The students in her class are asked to form a straight line and to take a step forward or backward in response to a series of questions she asks.

The questions are broad, causing students to delve deep into themselves. For example, she might ask students to step back from the line if they are often embarrassed or ashamed because of their material possessions; if they have ever tried to change their appearance, behavior, or speech to avoid being judged on the basis of their race; or if they were discouraged from academic or career paths because of their gender. Students might be told to step forward if they attended private school or summer camp; if their family owned their own home; or if they have never had to worry about handicapped accessibility when entering places.

"With exercises like the 'privilege line'," says Foeman, "each student can see that he or she owns a part of the diversity discussion."

Currently Dr. Foeman is working on a project on the social construction of race in which she interviews people about their ethnic ancestry, DNA tests them, and compares the two "stories."

Foeman has taught communication studies at West Chester since 1982, except between 1989 and 1991, when she was an assistant professor at Stockton (N.J.) State College. She earned her bachelor's at Defiance College, Defiance, Ohio. Both her master's and her doctorate in communication from Temple University included an emphasis on organizations. She also has 20 years of training experience in academic institutions, for corporations, mental health, and nonprofit agencies on a wide range of communication themes, including general communication effectiveness, diversity and public presentation.