Speaker Frances Portillo impressed with employees' interest in sharing concerns, experiences

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Frances Portillo, a specialist on cross-cultural communication and conflict management, leads groups of Beaverton School District, city of Beaverton and Tualatin Hills Park and Recrecation District employees in an exercise during the the seventh annual Equity Seminar held at Beaverton High School.This is the third year the Beaverton School District, the city of Beaverton and Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District have collaborated on a seminar devoted to creating a culturally welcoming and inclusive work environment.

It's the first year, however, the event focused on those employees who have initial contact with people of widely varying cultural and language backgrounds.

"We've had staff and teachers, but this is the first time we've invited the front office staff," said Sho Shigeoka, a school district teaching and learning specialist and planner of the seventh annual Equity Seminar. "Before, it was leadership first. This year we made an intentional shift to the front office, the recognizable faces of the organization."by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District's Lane Cartales fills out a diversity exercise sheet along with other participants during Tuesday's seminar.

This year's seminar, formerly known as the Diversity Summit, brought more than 350 front office employees from the three agencies together on Tuesday morning at Beaverton High School, 13000 S.W. Second St., to learn and share experiences related to cultural diversity in the workplace. Keynote speaker Frances Portillo, a Portland-based intercultural communications specialist, shared strategies for engaging with individuals and groups, including exercises designed to break down social and language barriers.

Based on a series of possible scenarios, some taken from actual interactions at the three agencies, participants later broke off into smaller, agency-based groups to discuss how they've handled things in the past and how they could improve by taking a different approach, tone or line of questioning. Participants were encouraged to develop their own goals based on various approaches:

• Being welcoming and noticing families who return for more service.

• Asking questions of unfamiliar customers, families or students and seeing if they initiate future conversations.

• Interrupting insensitive or hurtful comments based on race, culture, gender or sexual orientation by asking thoughtful questions.

Portillo, who just returned from Indonesia as part of a Portland State University-sponsored visit in support of the Clinton Global Initiative, was impressed with the engagement and open-mindedness of Tuesday's audience.

"People came in with open arms and minds, ready to sift through my information to find the nuggets that shine for them," she said. "They were willing to admit errors and commit to work toward fixing them. They were clearly able to take what I said and apply it to their own environments."

Kylie Bayer-Fertterer, the park district's community outreach coordinator, praised the involvement of front-office and desk staff in this year's event.

"It's important because the front-line office staff are the first people to make an impression on the community members," she said, noting the park district has notably expanded its bilingual staff members. "This helps with treating people equally and (encouraging) skills to serve everyone appropriately."

Charlene Failla, principal's secretary at Scholls Heights Elementary School, said she enjoyed the seminar, which she felt reflected changes she sees throughout the community.

"In 25 years I've seen great changes in diversity and different languages," she said. "I've learned a lot about different cultures, how I judge them and how they judge me. The district is now bending (to accommodate diversity), which it didn't always do.

"We're learning to be equal to each other," she added. "Everyone has to learn that, no matter what your race or color."

Shigeoka agreed.

"Our districts are becoming more diverse, with 93 languages spoken — a reflection of our changing community. We have to become more culturally responsive," she said.

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