Diversity: What Does it Mean to You?

December 2020: Wide Angle

“Diversity means different things to different people,” explains Abdesalam Soudi, a sociolinguist in the Dietrich School’s Department of Linguistics. This fact is the foundation of a project that Soudi is undertaking to explore the meaning of diversity. This project began in 2017 when Soudi was leading a team organizing the Cultural and Linguistic Diversity Conference: Living and Working Together. The conference brought together people from different departments and organizations to probe how each group approaches the topic of diversity. “I wanted to do a movie or a documentary in addition to the conference,” recalls Soudi. “I wanted to capture what diversity means to people within the University of Pittsburgh: faculty, staff and students.” Soudi designed three questions to explore in the documentary, which he carefully worked into conversations with the university participants: What does diversity mean to you? What is the value of diversity in your life and work? And what, in the respondent’s opinion, is the most effective way of supporting diversity. Through this project, Soudi gained valuable insight into how different people perceive diversity and how to support it. The documentary also revealed that the way people define diversity translates into the value they attribute to diversity in life and work. “It's a question of value and expectation,” says Soudi. “In the way people value diversity in life and work, they also develop expectations and opinions about the most effective way to support it. The message I wanted to send to organizations and companies in general is to adopt a bottom-up approach, a grassroots approach to diversity. We can't design diversity initiatives detached from reality. For us to design something that works best, we need to connect the context to the audience.” Soudi says he has also incorporated the documentary and the questions into his classrooms. “It's the same idea,” Soudi explains. “What is your vision of a university classroom? What does an inclusive classroom mean to you?” “I can design all day what is a culturally diverse, inclusive classroom. But at the end of the day, it depends on the student population we have in that particular class… Talking about policies and statements and jargon about inclusive language in class is not enough. An inclusive classroom requires purposeful engagement.” Soudi believes this bottom-up approach is an effective means to engage in and support diversity. “You can talk all day about how many laws you have in place to protect diversity, but laws get broken all the time. What doesn't get broken is when people themselves are engaged; that's when you begin to see the difference. Diversity is a work in progress. There are always opportunities to do better.” Recognizing this, Soudi is now revisiting this project with a broader reach: everyone. “I want to capture the community, because diversity also needs to be seen in other areas, outside of campus,” says Soudi. For this revisit, anyone can reach out to Soudi at HinH@pitt.edu to provide answers to his three questions. Soudi plans to analyze the responses and present the information in manuscripts. This will serve to summarize the findings, Soudi said, but will also prompt people to think further about diversity. “It's a work in progress and it will always be,” Soudi explains. “I mean, I run into miscommunication all the time. I'm a linguist. We have to accept that, have to expect those limitations.” In another effort to address the need for diversity support in medical and health sciences education, Soudi and others created the Humanities in Health initiative, or HinH. HinH is a partnership between linguistics, education, business, and medicine to help train clinicians to support “culturally responsive and sensitive healthcare.” HinH highlights the diverse roles humanities play in making our community safe, inclusive, just, and healthy for all. Through these initiatives, Soudi hopes to watch Pitt continue to grow into a hub for diversity; especially now, as people make new efforts to tackle the issues of inequity and racism, sustaining this conversation is important. “Our demographics are always changing. Sustaining and entertaining a conversation about diversity, inclusion, and equity should always be part of what we do … I think it’s important that we create a bottom-up approach that is engaging for everyone, and sustain it in a culturally-competent way,” says Soudi. Soudi notes that Pitt has an important role to play in supporting the diversity of the Pittsburgh region. Pitt includes community engagement and embracing diversity as part of the Strategic Plan for Pitt, said Soudi, and is engaging with communities to overcome cultural and language barriers, including many additional projects to enrich students’ experiences and promote collaboration. “We do a variety of things with companies in Pittsburgh, nonprofit organizations, as well as for-profit organizations. Because of that, we have strong ties with the community. I am here because of Pitt—I'm from Morocco. We have international communities brought to Pittsburgh through Pitt. I think that Pitt is adding and contributing to the diversity of the region, and bringing in talent from different backgrounds and different regions of the world. I think those things are nice bridges.” Continues Soudi, “Linguistics affords me a very good tool and methods to study what I'm passionate about.” Reflecting himself, Soudi recounts memories of his village in Morocco. He has fond memories of specific gathering places: the tree that his mom and other women would sit under to make argan oil and share stories and struggles, and the community well, where people would meet as they gathered water and check in on each other. “I guess that’s what prompted me to strive to create spaces for cultural engagement for people to get together with each other,” says Soudi. “People need to gather. There have to be gathering points for us to learn about each other, and even better if those things are purposeful. We can’t leave it to spontaneity because we are all busy, so we need to create those spaces.” Return to Snapshot