It is rare that something provides an “ah-ha” moment, but an initiative called Seeking Education Equity and Diversity (SEED) has been creating these moments for more than 100 people in the Black River Falls community since 2012.

In Black River Falls, SEED is a monthly three-hour seminar held Fall through Spring where groups of 20 people or less from all walks of life get together to discuss their perspectives on equity and diversity. SEED is a national program that was started in 1987 by Dr. Peggy McIntosh as a professional development opportunity for PK-12 educators.

Mary Jo Rozmenoski, president of the Black River Falls School District, experienced one of these “ah-ha” moments when attending a SEED session.

Rozmenoski said her grandparents were boarding school parents for Native American children while she was growing up. She had always thought that it was a wonderful thing that they had an opportunity to learn to speak English and other things that were taught there.

While experiencing SEED, she instead learned that these children were physically removed and forced to speak English. “I thought all my life that this was a wonderful thing,” Rozmenoski said explaining that this was a personal revelation for herself.

Kim Parker, a four-time SEED facilitator, explained that this lesson is common for those that participate in SEED.

“One of the SEED concepts is, you don’t know what you don’t know. You only believe what the world has taught you,” Parker said. “There were just things that I wasn’t taught based on the knowledge that I was given.”

Barbara Blackdeer-Mackenzie, another SEED facilitator, said helping people better understand equity and diversity is the major benefit of SEED.

“Anybody who has been marginalized-whether that’s people with disabilities, people of color, gender and more-all kinds of different people can be oppressed. That might feel like a strong word, but in fact oppression and empowerment are considered when you are mindful of how you behave and how you speak in your own head to others. So SEED to me is a pursuit of social justice,” said Blackdeer-Mackenzie. “SEED explores how it was we got the messages we did growing up, keeping oppressive systems in place that create societal inequity, and what might help people-all people-live the life we were taught was possible. All people getting treated fairly and equitably.”

While the Ho-Chunk Nation does provide funding for the program and the meal that is provided, two-time SEED attendee Marcus Lewis explains this is not just a Ho-Chunk 101 session.

“This is not Ho-Chunk 101. That isn’t the point of SEED. It isn’t just sitting around talking about treaty rights and our casinos and our trust lands and so forth,” Lewis said during a presentation to the Black River Falls School District board.

Common topics discussed during a SEED session include racism, homophobia, gender identity, sexual orientation and privilege, which Lewis said does not just include “white privilege”.

“It is a really interesting perspective to have a conversation about that with your community members. It’s not just white privilege, which I think is the one that gets the most press, but also male privilege, heterosexual privilege, ableism and some other things I think are prevalent,” Lewis said.

Sowing the SEEDs

Since SEED was originally meant as a professional development tool for teachers about equity and diversity, it was first introduced by the Ho-Chunk Nation to the Black River Falls School District in 2012.

“When SEED was first introduced to the community, it was introduced by the Ho-Chunk Nation for a possible collaboration. So the first SEED group was primarily all staff members,” Severson said.

Many teachers in the district have now participated in SEED and are leading the charge for teaching with diversity and equity in mind, which is something Severson feels is a great asset for the district.

“We have a group called the Culturally Responsive Teaching Committee, and that committee contains several people who have been through the whole SEED process,” Severson said. “I think that the district directly benefits because anytime somebody grows within their own person or within their own professionalism, and feels strengthened by that growth, it positively impacts the work that they do with kids.”

Lewis said this growth is especially important in a school district like Black River Falls where the population is very diverse.

“Fundamentally from a numbers standpoint, at least one out of five students that your faculty will run into are not like them. Right? Because we don’t have legions of Ho-Chunk or Native American faculty here either. So, we are going to run into different kinds of people,” Lewis said explaining that 21-23 percent of the population of students at the district are Native American.

As a graduate of Black River Falls, Lewis also admitted that things have changed since he first went to school and that many of these equity and diversity issues are being talked about more openly.

“When I was in high school and I graduated, how every many years ago, there was no gay-straight alliance,” Lewis said. “So obviously society is changing, education is changing as well. I think this is just another good thing to add to that.”

Aside from all of the societal reasons for encouraging teachers to participate in the program, Severson said many of the teachers have gotten even more out of it.

“Raising an awareness of stereotypes and biases always helps to make people more conscientious in their actions and thoughts and how they impact the fiscal environment. The people who have participated in the SEED groups have reported that they really benefited personally from that,” Severson said.

Expanding beyond the classroom

Even though the program first started as a way to expand equity and diversity in the classroom, the Ho-Chunk Nation has expanded it beyond the classroom to now include the community.

“SEED is seen as something about working with school districts, but I think it is more than that. It is more than teachers, administrators and school board members. It’s the whole community. So, business owners, church goers, just everyone in the community. Everybody is welcome to attend,” Michelle Cloud said, who as the division manager-culture and community education, is in charge of SEED for the Ho-Chunk Nation.

“Something unique about us is nationally a lot of the facilitators focus on school districts and school districts only. As the national group has looked more at rural areas, we are finding that the blend of school district personnel and community has made much richer groups in a lot of different ways,” Blackdeer-Mackenzie said.

By bringing SEED to the entire Black River Falls community, the Ho-Chunk Nation has been helping lead this initiative for the entire SEED organization.

“The Ho-Chunk Nation is very much recognized by the whole SEED organization as a group that is really carrying that torch and carrying that message. They are really leaders. There is not as concentrated a SEED effort around this state as there is in our community because of the work of the Ho-Chunk Nation,” Severson said.

Lewis said this introduction of community members into the conversation was a natural fit for the SEED program the Ho-Chunk Nation wanted to have.

“The real main message is just about having a conversation and really just deciding as a community how to make things more inclusive and just increase equity across the board. I think the fundamental thing we all have in common is that we want a good community for our children and everyone. This is just a means to help that along,” Lewis said.

With this infusion of the community into the conversation, the Ho-Chunk Nation felt it would bring even more diversity and equity conversations to the table.

“Any given person has so many different identities. You know I am female. I am half Ho-Chunk. I am half white, half Norwegian American, half Native American. Those types of things where I identify with all of those different pieces and all of those different pieces when you tease them out into these different marginalized areas, you find out where you stand on different critical issues,” Blackdeer-Mackenzie said.

Setting the ground rules

With community members and teachers, the SEED groups have very specific rules that are used to create trust among the members and allow for amazing conversations.

These ground rules are read before every meeting and adhered to by the facilitators, and one of the most important rules happens when everyone walks through the door.

“One thing that I think is important is dropping your titles at the door. When you enter into that SEED, you are not going to be Mrs. Radcliffe, a third grade teacher anymore. You are going to be Mary Jo. It is that kind of thing. You drop your titles at the door,” Rozmenoski said.

The first meeting is also really important to set trust among the group, which is why the group is closed after the first session.

“The way that we build that trust is that the people that come to the first meeting, those are the ones that are going to be in that group. Say we started in October and then somebody hears about it and they want to come in November, we consider the group closed after the first meeting,” Cloud said.

Facilitators also do their best to make sure everyone is heard, especially when someone says something that may be offensive.

“There is always the right to say ‘Ouch.’ What I mean by that is perhaps someone said something or shared something that maybe struck you in a negative way, so you have a right as a member of the group to say ‘Hey, that wasn’t cool,’” Lewis said.

Outside of the rules, participants do a wide range of activities during the sessions including journaling, art, discussions, poetry, watching videos and reading articles led by the facilitators, but many of the facilitators explained the discussion often has a life of its own.

“The facilitators take their cue from the participants in terms of what they want to discuss,” Lewis said.

This is because even facilitators are a part of the group and participate. “We (facilitators) are actually a part of the group. Even just how we sit in a circle. Everybody is the same, again, we are also on our journeys where we are with our life,” Cloud said.

The SEED program by the Ho-Chunk Nation has so far trained more than 120 people in Black River Falls and Nekoosa, many of which have attended several different SEED groups and moved onto SEED two.

SEED groups will be forming again in October and will go through June. The SEED groups will not meet in December this year. If you are interested in joining a SEED group, please contact Michelle Cloud at Michelle.Cloud@ho-chunk.com.

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