Creating Inclusive Cultures around Gender Identity Through Understanding

unsplash-logoLeighann Blackwood

When Dean Rebecca Ivanoff of the University of Oregon School of Law invited me to train 120 first-year law students on creating more inclusive cultures around gender identity and expression, I recognized an exciting opportunity to integrate an inclusion discussion with training in developing understanding, as we think of it at the Center for Understanding in Conflict (CUC).

By Melanie Rowen

The intersection of understanding and inclusion comes up often in CUC trainings and in our community discussions. Lacey Wilson, Natalia Lopez Whitaker, Eric Butler, Becca Vershbow, Catherine Conner, and Gary Friedman have developed and offered Real Talk, a training on conversations about race, which sits at this intersection. At the University of Oregon, I was excited to bring CUC’s skills training approach to law students in the context of talking about gender identity and expression.

Dean Ivanoff and a second-year law student leader, Sarah Osborn, worked with me to make sure the class session would both fit in with the school’s’ professional development goals for students and make a positive contribution to school climate for LGBTQ students. It was also important to us that the students have a chance to practice the “inner work” of recognizing their own judgments and biases, and inwardly processing their own reactions in the moment in order to stay present and connected with the person they are listening to.

In a 75-minute class session, the students worked on listening to understand another person, using “looping” to discuss prompts about how their own multiple identities, including gender identity and expression as well as race, class, disability, and others, shape the perspective from which they approach their work. They also learned the basics of implicit bias, and explored how we can create environments that are gender-inclusive, avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes, and are welcoming to transgender and gender non-conforming people. Throughout, they were encouraged to practice attending to their own judgments and biases, and to notice their own reactions. 

“By learning to loop one another, and by practicing guided self-reflection at key moments throughout the class, the students had the opportunity to process their own ideas and assumptions around gender, and to benefit from their classmates’ understandings and insights, at a deeper level.”

One challenge we faced was time. This was a lot to fit into just over an hour! To make it possible, it was crucial to teach the skill of “looping” first. By learning to loop one another, and by practicing guided self-reflection at key moments throughout the class, the students had the opportunity to process their own ideas and assumptions around gender, and to benefit from their classmates’ understandings and insights, at a deeper level. They also had the opportunity, through looping discussions, to experience judgments in the moment and to practice noticing them.

We could have spent a day-long training (or more) on applying skills for developing understanding in the context of creating more gender-inclusive environments. Thanks to looping and to the students’ engagement and focus, we were able to accomplish quite a bit in one class period. It’s exciting to think about what else might be possible for trainings at the intersection of understanding and inclusion.


Melanie Rowen is a mediator and conflict coach who believes in the power of understanding-based conflict resolution to transform our world. She frequently trains individuals and groups on effective communication in conflict situations and on creating inclusive environments, particularly around gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Melanie previously litigated civil rights cases, including marriage equality, employment discrimination, issues involving transgender and gender non-conforming youth and their families, and issues facing LGBTQI elders, at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Before that, she worked in business litigation at Latham & Watkins LLP.  Melanie serves on the Board of Directors of the Transgender Law Center and is the Associate Director for Public Interest Programs at UC Berkeley School of Law.