Southern Illinois University Edwardsville celebrates Diversity Day each October. Across the campus students, faculty and community members engage in various activities focused on the beauty of our differences and the power of our commonalities.
My friend Sasi is someone you probably remember. I visited his class last fall and then took a cooking class from him out at beautiful La Vista Ecological Learning Center. Ever since that day with his class, I’ve always wished that I could have been one of his college students. Though I am well past college age, I’d have given anything to be in one of his innovative anthropology classes. He’s one of those rare teachers who doesn’t force feed you information but offers you the opportunity to learn for yourself. You can certainly pass exams with enough information, but to truly contribute, to be a change in the world, you need the wisdom of someone who can help you figure stuff out on your own. That’s my friend, Sasi.
The perfect example is this “tea and cookie” event he decided to hold on Diversity Day 2019. All you had to do was show up and drink tea and eat cookies—as much as you wanted, no admission required. Sounds like a bargain, right? Well sometimes people get more than they bargain for, ya know?
In the University’s beautiful Center for Spirituality and Sustainability, Sasi set up a long table with 20 or so plates of different cookies. He had multiple pots of tea steeping. The room filled up. Well, duh. Unlimited cookies, tea, no cost, no exam. But, of course, the ticket was the opportunity learn.
As students were cheerfully munching away, talking, laughing, pouring each other tea, Sasi asked for their attention: “Who here hates Russia?” Silence. Everyone looked up, unsure where he was headed. “Well you may have just eaten a Russian cookie,” he said with a smile. “Who doesn’t like Saudia Arabia? There are cookies from Saudia Arabia on the table, so maybe you ate one and liked it” he said. “So why are we here eating cookies today?”
The students were catching on a bit, smiling, murmuring to one another, nibbling on another cookie, some looking across the table of sweets with new eyes. Sasi asked who wanted to share thoughts about diversity, and one young man explained that he was tired of all the hate, he just wanted to get along.
And I thought about that. The student’s request seemed so simple, so why was it so hard? Partly I think this young man had youth on his side—less baggage, less space in his heart that might harden with experience and pressure from outside, less of a perception of threat from the “other”. I wondered if that would inevitably change. I hoped not. “This student is a freshman,” Sasi explained to me later, “and I’m not sure he truly understands yet what he is saying. I think younger students have a hard time articulating their thoughts on complicated issues.”
Sasi explained that “diversity remains one of the core concepts in anthropology. Teaching diversity in a highly polarized world can be a real challenge,” he offered. “After the 2016 presidential election, I was trying to minimize political polarization in my classes, and I realized that PowerPoints and lecture notes will not do that much. So, I decided to use topics that are the least political and non-controversial among my students. Food is one. Everyone loves food.”
Indeed. This was a theme in the cooking class I was in, as well. We all prepared and ate a myriad of dishes that day, and our group work and the bounty it afforded was meant to symbolize how we each contribute, how we each are worth something and food—sustenance for both body and soul—was our gift to each other. It wasn’t about what was different so much as it was about how we celebrate diversity while being part of the whole.
As Sasi’s tea was coming to a close, a young woman asked him: “Are you going to tell us which cookies come from which country now?” I was curious to know, too. But Sasi said no. “I don’t like labels,” he explained. “Labels are the problem. When we label things, we create division. It’s better to like the cookie for what it is—flour, sugar, butter–rather than judge it on where it came from. It is a way to teach us about humanity. We all eat cookies!”
As the students were finishing off their treats, Sasi asked them “Isn’t it fun to learn about different cultures by eating cookies? Read a chapter or eat a cookie?” No hard facts on cookies, no geography lesson, no comments on cultural culinary practices, but lots of opportunity to learn. I doubt any of those students ever look at each other or cookies in the same way again.
“I think one can use food to talk about any social justice issue from diabetes to climate change to diversity,” said Sasi. “In 2017, I developed a pedagogical framework that uses food as a method and practice of teaching social justice which I call ‘foodagogy’. My idea was influenced by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This cookies and tea was an example of my foodagogy. Everyone can relate to food. I think food can be a common reference, as no life can survive without food. One can use food to teach a complex idea in a simple way anyone can understand.”
“What were you wanting the students to understand through this particular event?” I asked. “I wanted the students understand the beauty of our diverse world through the aesthetics and taste of those cookies and the tea. It reminds them that no matter where we come from, we have so much more in common than our differences. The cookies look different in terms of size, shape, and color, but we all know the basic ingredients remain same: flour, sugar, and butter or oil.”
Sasi drove his point home especially well, I thought, with this final observation: “Particularly, tea and coffee originated in Asia, but now people all over the world cannot go without them. It shows how we all are connected through food. I think it is the beautiful thing about our humanity.”
So perhaps we should all brew a pot of tea or coffee, bake some cookies and invite the world to our table? Green Gal suggestions include my new favorite The Mega Cookie or perhaps Gluten-Free Raspberry Thumbprints? The cookies are easy; the peace can be, too—it is up to all of us.