Contributor Spotlight: Jen Marshall Duncan – Wife, mother, teacher, blogger
Multicultural Familia is a place where individuals can learn more about families like theirs and find new perspectives from parents around the globe. As part of our mission, we are proud to showcase the personal stories of real families who are multicultural like you. Learn more about our multicultural contributors in this special Contributor Spotlight series.
What are three personality traits that best describe you and how do they impact your personal identity?
I am really patient, loyal, and positive. All three of these traits together have a huge impact on my identity–especially when I reflect on what I do for a living. I teach in an alternative high school program for kids who don’t fit into a traditional educational setting. They have many reasons for being in my program–some have babies, some have difficult home lives, some are just “different” from everyone else. I am extremely patient with my students because I know that attending school hasn’t always been a positive experience before. Many of them have problems that are beyond their control (learning disabilities, homelessness, and hunger for example.) My goal is to help them see that they have choices in life. I am really positive in my interactions with them. No matter how bad a situation is, I can see a way for it to get better. No matter what is in a person’s past, I can see an opportunity for learning in the present and change in the future. People just have to choose to make a change. I am very loyal to my students and my job; I’ve been working in the same place for 14 years.
What are your fondest childhood memories related to your cultural heritage?
When I was 12 my Oma died. After a while, my grandfather moved in with a nice Lithuanian lady and that relationship created a whole new set of cultural memories: family meals were “picnics” in the basement so that the plastic-coated furniture in the living room wouldn’t get ruined. We’d have a feast of beige food, including Lithuanian dishes like kugelis, sauerkraut, and Napoleon for dessert. Finishing the meal meant it was time for live accordion music and polka dancing (it would be more correct to say that the old folks finished that way, while the youngsters snuck upstairs to watch TV or listen to rock music. Accordion? Embarrassing!) Even though it was sometimes uncomfortable to be a young, English-speaking person in a room full of Lithuanians, I am glad I experienced those ethnic moments. They are some of my fondest cultural memories and they help me to feel empathy for people who are new to the U.S. and trying to learn our language and culture.
How did you meet your spouse?
In what ways are you and your spouse different? In what ways are you alike?
Despite those differences, we are really very similar. We both love to read books and watch movies. We both love all kinds of music, from alternative rock to disco and everything in between. We both like watching American Football (so much so that we got married on January 1–of course it was a symbolic new beginning; but it is also always a day off work to spend with each other watching college bowl games!) We both love libraries and love learning. Our worldviews are almost identical when it comes to issues of politics, religion, and all other topics people are supposed to avoid speaking of in polite company. And we would both do anything for our family.
What made you decide to become a writer/blogger?
In Iowa there are many people who don’t have the chance to encounter diversity. Many of the kids in my classroom have never been outside of their home county. I wanted to give them the opportunity to see things from a more global perspective. I also wanted people (both in Iowa and in the rest of the world) to know that there are pockets of extreme diversity in Iowa–our state is changing quickly. My blog became a place to write about those changes, to help people see that families of color/mixed families are families just like other families, and are families unlike other families–we carry some issues with us that all-white families don’t have. Similarly, because I teach in an alternative high school classroom, I wanted people to know that “those kids” are like all other teen-aged kids, and at the same time are kids unlike any other teen-aged kids because they carry some issues that many average teens don’t have. Out of that thinking empatheia was born.
No matter what topic I write about, empatheia offers an invitation to readers to see that topic through a new lens. I hope that every reader leaves my blog thinking, and forming a new opinion. I believe that the power of empathy–seeing things from someone else’s perspective–can change the world for the better.
How many children do you have and how old are they? Do you write about them on your blog? If so, what are your favorite posts about your children?
What is your personal mission? What do you seek to achieve in your lifetime?
I try to live each day knowing that I did my best to help people learn from each other, to get along better, and to feel better about the world we live in. My goal is to have no regrets–no “shoulda coulda woulda” thoughts dangling. You know that Michael Jackson song, “Man in the Mirror”? That gives you a good idea about my mission. I look at myself and see what I want to change about my own attitudes and perceptions, then I look at other people in my family, town, and workplace to see what change can be influenced there. I try to always think globally and act locally. I hope that there is a ripple effect, and what I do in my little corner catches on, spreading empathy to myriad other corners of our world.
What region of the world do you live in and how does that affect your cultural/personal identity?
A recent migration of Chicagoans has given our town a much more urban feel (the response of community members to this migration is both positive and negative at times.) We have ethnic restaurants, grocery stores, and cultural events that make our area feel like a big city, yet we still have a really small-town atmosphere. Kids can safely play outside, crime rates are low, and neighbors get to know each other pretty well. It’s really a great place to raise kids, and we have no problems as a multiracial family because there are many, many other families like us around. My daughter came home from school once and said, “I think everyone in my class is mixed!”
While our area is really ethnically and culturally diverse, things are different if you travel just 15-20 miles in any direction out of town. When we travel we are often out-of-place in the small-town gas stations we are forced to stop at for potty breaks. The town where I work is 99% white. My cultural and personal identity are wrapped up in this state of being in between two worlds. At work I am the only person who spends every day with brown people; at home I am the only white person in the house. I carry bits and pieces from one world to the other each day, hoping that the puzzle will eventually come together in one big world picture.
What advice would you give to other mixed couples/families?
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