Someone has been teasing Samantha.
“Samantha lives with her aunt because her mom is in jail,” teacher Mary Ross said to her St. Paul kindergarten class. “Someone said to her, ‘You don’t have a mom! She doesn’t love you!’ “
It didn’t matter that Samantha was a doll on the teacher’s lap. Cries of outrage filled the room: “Stop saying that!” ”No way!” ”Don’t worry — your mom loves you!”
Ross smiled and put the doll aside. It had performed its duties well — teaching a rudimentary lesson to a receptive audience, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
The dolls were provided by St. Paul-based Amaze consultants, where the business of diversity training is booming. In fact, a spot check of metro-area diversity consultants shows that demand has as much as doubled in the past two years.
It’s a response to, among other things, shootings of unarmed black men by police, the Black Lives Matter movement and white supremacist rallies.
The training is usually focused on race, but can be used to address other forms of discrimination, said Victoria Amaris, owner of Putting Change in Motion and a former manager of cultural dynamics for the Greater Twin Cities United Way.
She said diversity consultants offer a grab-bag of awareness-building programs involving Native Americans and Hispanic immigrants, along with groups such as women, bullying victims, gay people and transgender people.
“Don’t forget disabilities. I want to be inclusive of everybody,” said Amaris, who has even given a workshop on obesity discrimination.
All kinds of discrimination are increasing, she said, with racial discrimination leading the way.
“Minnesota Nice has kind of disappeared,” said Amaris.
The website of the nonprofit Minnesota Compass lists 55 groups that are, not surprisingly, extremely diverse. They sometimes consist of a single person, and sometimes represent international corporations. Fees vary from free to thousands of dollars for multi-month classes.
The results vary, and there are no industry standards to make sure it works.
Indeed, diversity training does not always go smoothly. From 2010-13, the St. Paul school district paid $1.2 million to a San Francisco firm with the goal of running all 6,000 employees through the diversity training.
Results were mixed. Suspensions of minority children dropped, but no evidence emerged that the achievement gap between black and white students was closing. Several teachers said they felt alienated, saying they were expected to ignore student misbehavior because of cultural differences.
The St. Paul district frequently uses outside consultants, according to Hans Ott, assistant superintendent for the Office of Teaching and Learning. He said the outside consultants train teachers more efficiently than the district can do it internally. They also help the district follow its own policies regarding student inclusion.
Although there is no known way to measure the impact of the training sessions, officials say it’s worth the money. The cost is often shared by grants, which come from nonprofits or businesses to address issues of discrimination. “This is good value,” said Ott.
He has been through training and endorses it. “I had a positive experience,” said Ott.
In the 1990s, said Amaris, consultants like her were asked to address discrimination against black people, and little else.
“Today, it’s not so much focused on that,” she said. “Now, it’s diversity and inclusion.”
The change hit Amaris when she got a contract with a chain of beauty salons. If that small business was worried about diversity, she said, the concern was trickling down. She has given workshops for police and dental school students, and got an inquiry recently from a bee-pollinators group.
“People are motivated now,” said Amaris.
The approaches of the consultants vary.
Often, they are called to act as cultural firefighters, putting out flare-ups of discrimination. Sometimes consultants are expected to fix problems that may have been building for years.
Non-emergency calls happen when a group simply wants to do the right thing, and counter prejudice in any form. For them, consultants prefer to schedule a series of meetings, giving people time to think about the sessions.
That can be effective, said Amaze director Michael — but the clients should be able to show they are open to change.
Businesses, for example, call when they want to hire more employees of color. “That’s a great thing to strive for,” said Michael. “But if you do that, will they be welcome? Will they fit into the culture you have?”
She tries to make individuals aware of bias — even unconscious bias. All group members should take the training, she said. “I ask that the maintenance staff be included,” said Amaris.
Many do not understand the issue. “They say, ‘Why can’t we just get along with each other?’ We have no idea why we are not getting along with each other.”
Interest in the Antiracism Study Dialogue Circles Partnership, based in St. Paul, spiked about three years ago, according to the single-named director, Okogyeamon.
“Not just for us, but across the board,” he said.
He has taught sessions at the University of Minnesota and Carleton College, and is hosting workshops for officials in the state Department of Human Services.
Only recently, he said, have elements of society realized that racism is their problem — not the problem of some distant “other.”
“What is new is the recognition that this truly is an issue, and that it is pervasive,” said Okogyeamon. “Racism is playing itself out in life all around them.”
In the kindergarten class at Expo Elementary School recently, the different threads of discrimination were woven together — with the help of dolls.
Ahlaam, a 5-year-old girl in a black hijab, carried a doll named Sitra to the teacher. The doll, too, wore a hijab. Instead of making the girl an example, the teacher looked at the doll.
“If someone teased her about that, what words would you use?” teacher Ross asked the class.
“Knock it off!” shouted one student.
The teacher pointed to another doll, clutched by 5-year-old Finnian. The doll, named Nick, had long curly hair. “What if someone said to Nick, ‘You have long hair like a girl’?” said the teacher.
Finnian clutched the doll defensively. “Leave him alone!” he said.
After the class, the teacher said the dolls allow kids to model compassionate behavior, without embarrassing anyone. “It’s easier for kids to talk about someone like them,” said Ross.
The dolls came in handy when one student announced recently that his mom was in jail.
Soon after, the teacher revealed that the doll Samantha had a secret — her mom had been locked up. She asked the class how they might respond. “You could say, ‘You aren’t the only one with a mom in jail,’ ” suggested Ross.
Immediately, the sympathetic class practiced what they would say to the doll — or to anyone facing a similar situation.