Affirming Hospitality

July 10, 2023
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Leadership and Management
Group of conference attendees welcoming each other.

By Julia Pomerenk, AACRAO Board Member

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, yet 14 times each summer, I get to enjoy lunch served on a big lawn on campus--after mingling for an hour or more with a couple of hundred new students and their families, as they begin their IntroDUCKtion experience at the University of Oregon. Catching me in the midst of some expansive gesture and welcome, a colleague noted “You were born to do this.” I do like to mingle. I see myself as a host, for any place where I am more at home than those I meet and greet.

Priya Parker, in her book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, gives three responsibilities to hosts, as they create welcoming spaces: equalize your guests; connect your guests; and protect your guests. Parker urges hosts to exercise “generous authority,” to help ensure that each individual at a gathering feels equally valued, connected, and protected. Under generous authority, hosts can create a space that welcomes each guest’s authentic self. 

In this present time and throughout history, not everyone feels as free to be their authentic selves. As a cis-gendered, straight, white woman, I am more able to be authentically me, in higher education and in many other settings, than my colleagues and my students whose identities have been pushed out and held at the margins. I can use my majority privilege to actively include those who have been excluded. 

With Rev Eston Williams, may I say “I’d rather be excluded for who I include than included for who I exclude.” Rev Williams used his privilege as a white United Methodist pastor to lead a rural congregation in Texas as they began to include same-sex couples among the couples who could be married in their church. A dear friend paid me the generous compliment that I “include with abandon.” May that be true.

My Approach

I can help create accountable spaces, using the phrase an AACRAO colleague shared with me recently. I can help set the expectation that each individual and each gathered group will be accountable for their words and actions and the impact of their words and actions. From another colleague, I learned that groups can adopt “ouch” and “oops” as simple signals for painful impacts, such as micro-aggressions. The much more benign example of stepping on toes provides an example. If someone steps on my toes, I can say “Ouch.” If I step on someone’s toes, I can say “Oops.” Perhaps no harm was intended. Yet harm was felt. Harm needs to be acknowledged. We all need to be held accountable. In Maya Angelou’s words, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

One of my models for hospitality and welcome was the college student who worked at the front counter of Sella’s pizza parlor in Pullman, Washington. When a customer came through the doors and hesitated, she walked out from behind the counter, asking “Have you been here before?” If this was their first time, she explained what a calzone was, gave tips for ordering, and talked about the walls decorated with the customers’ crayon creations drawn on (formerly) blank paper placemats. 

I grew up watching my mom quietly welcome newcomers with her actions. During church services, she always kept her hymnal open to the liturgy, though she knew the words by heart. When I asked her why, she said that not everyone knows the words and she didn’t want anyone to feel awkward holding an open book. She also offered her hymnal, open to the proper page, to others. She would point to the place in the hymn so that everyone could sing along. After the last “Thanks be to God,” she would close her hymnal and greet newcomers, welcoming them to the coffee and cookies, so often served after Lutheran worship services. The love language of Lutherans and my life consists of coffee and food. 

Like the tea with extra sugar served to witnesses in British crime dramas, some extra sweetness seems most necessary in stressful times. Luis Alberto Urrea, in his new novel, Good Night, Irene, writes about the Donut Dollies who delivered the mail, their company, and donuts to the soldiers of World War II. These Red Cross volunteers, including Urrea’s mother, followed just behind the combat lines. I began to bring cookies to the Catalog Subcommittee meetings years ago when our agendas were filled with the changes to a new general education curriculum. On 9-11-2001, I remember the sweetness of the banana bread, still warm, left on my kitchen table by a friend with the note: “I know that this was a hard day for you.” 

Bowling is hard for me too. At the recent AACRAO leadership gathering, our evening activity was dinner and bowling. After eating, I might have demurred donning bowling shoes. But my three dinner companions included me on the team, and a bowling buddy rolled my first turn for me, as I dawdled. Despite my low skill level (and reluctance), I was welcomed. I was seen as a member of the team. I was included. Like so much of my success, I owe every pin that fell with a satisfying thud to the support of my colleagues—and to the bumpers that popped up just for me and kept my balls from the gutter. 

There may be no such thing as a free membership, yet this next year, upcoming changes in the membership structure will make joining even easier. Along with AACRAO leaders who are preparing to welcome more members, each of us current AACRAO members can step into host roles, as we welcome our colleagues from across our universities, to include those above, below, and across from us on organizational charts. Let’s welcome them into an accountable association, where we encourage all members to be their full, authentic selves.


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