It’s Intimidating and Important... So Let’s Talk About It
by Gianna Russo-Mitma, MS, LMFT, ORCA President-Elect
Diversity and inclusivity have been in continual conversation within the Oregon Counseling Association, even more so since the change in our country within the last year. With our current President Joel Lane’s vision for our organization, ORCA’s critical goals have focused more on honoring diversity, connecting with more counselors of various backgrounds, and standing up for equity and equality (in small and large ways).
To get this started within ORCA, the organization’s newsletter, The Counselor (what you are reading right now), asked for articles on diversity, inclusivity, intersectionality, and advocacy. Articles poured in on so many amazing topics from people of all backgrounds – we were thrilled to hear from ORCA members who may have been less vocal in the past! We are so proud of you all for stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking the leap to write for us on such a major topic!
In my honest opinion, it's daunting to write about diversity as a white, cisgender female (as it should be, as I have admittedly faced much less oppression than other folks). While even trying to write this article, I've been nervously thinking, "What if people think I don't grasp what is happening?" Or wondering if people will say, "This white girl has no clue.” It’s scary to engage in discussions, because truly, I don't fully understand what it's like to be a person of color, or a member of the LGBTQIA community, or part of many marginalized groups; I can only empathize, listen, learn, and be the ally that I am. It is intimidating to engage in discussions like this, but in order to get anything accomplished for this important matter, we have to be uncomfortable, accept that we will make mistakes (then learn from them), pay attention to others’ experiences, and validate.
I’m thinking: What if people think I don’t grasp what is happening? Or wondering if people will say, This white girl has no clue.
Intersectionality is defined as the “complex way in which multiple forms of discrimination overlap in the experiences of marginalized folks” (Merriam-Webster). We talk about privilege with topics such as race, gender, citizenship status, and sexuality in mind. We easily forget that other privileges exist (i.e. ability, economic status, education, religion, genetics). With fall’s edition of The Counselor centered on intersectionality, I would like to talk about this topic from my personal experiences. I will preface my article with this: I cannot even fathom what it feels like to be in deeper marginalized groups.
I am a plus size female with asthma. When you read this, you may construct a quick judgment about me or the groups I belong to, you may have your own thoughts on it all, and you may even disagree that these attributes belong to “less privileged” groups. From my unique and individual experience (as these conversations are), I have faced challenges with these qualities, but probably nowhere near the challenges that others have faced for identities such as race, citizenship status, etc.
My first memory of being “different” because I had asthma was in elementary school during a (rare) snow day in Las Vegas. All the kids were allowed to go outside at recess and play it in, except the kids with asthma or other health conditions, who were required to stay in the multipurpose room. This marked the first time that I realized I was different from other kids, because until that point, I wasn’t. When P.E. became a required class, I was the kid that had to have a note from their parent that said I couldn't do certain things, and when the teachers forgot your letter from the first day of school, you'd have to mention it to them weekly.
Each time we had to run the mile, I was allowed to walk it, but then this created the "us and them" scenario, where I was one of the slow/fat/asthmatic/unhealthy/[enter any negative adjective here] kids. It always felt odd and uncomfortable.
My most recent experience of being told I could not do something due to this health issue was on vacation this summer. After planning for weeks, we decided to sign up for an underwater Caribbean Sea Trek. When we arrived, lo and behold, if you have anything on their medical list (asthma included) you are NOT allowed to do this activity. It is an awful feeling to be reduced to a label, told you’re not allowed. It is an oddly emotional experience. Aside from emotional stuff like this, having asthma (or any chronic health condition) is a huge nuisance. I have to use a Nebulizer (a really invasive machine with tubes and a mouthpiece), and I am always on the go with my inhalers (home, purse, car, etc).
Considering these turbulent political and societal times (and beyond these times): pause, take a step back, and listen to others' stories. Don't make assumptions. Keep an open mind. Ask questions. Mistakes are how we learn. I would much rather someone ask me questions than assume things about me. And if I, or others, don't feel like answering questions, we won't. Be open to constructive criticism and being educated on topics. Be aware that no one knows everything, including you. I learn things every single day from others, and it's beautiful.
In conjunction with ORCA's movement to honor diversity and create more discussions like this, our conference theme is “The Constant of Change: Ethical Counseling Embracing Diversity” which starts THIS WEEK on November 2-4 in Tigard. Register here.
We can, and we will, make society a better place – it just has to start with a conversation together.
Gianna Russo-Mitma, M.S., LMFT, is ORCA’s President Elect. She has a practice in Portland working with teen girls and self esteem, and co- parents after separation and divorce. Gianna also works with foster care youth, doing mental health assessments at DHS. She is also the lead counselor for Clear Transitions PDX and teaches at University of Portland and at Portland State University as an Adjunct Professor.