Washington People: Edem and Pam Dzunu

English Language Programs instructors work to unify community

Dzunu family portrait
Pam Dzunu, left, and Edem Dzunu, with their son, Etornam, 2, on April 1, 2016. The couple, who work in the Office for International Students and Scholars at Washington University, created and run the nonprofit Baobab People, which seeks to promote understanding among people of different backgrounds. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

On the plane, flying back to London from St. Louis in January 2009, Edem Dzunu was shaken. He had come stateside to visit his fiancée, Pam, and meet her family. The couple had met online, and after several months  of talking, emailing and visits, they became engaged. The only hurdle left was for Edem to introduce himself to Pam’s family and friends.

“I have traveled around the world,” Edem Dzunu said. “And I acknowledge that every place has its own unique problems, but what I encountered here was on a completely different level. It came as a shock.”

Edem was told he was not welcome, and Pam was discouraged from marrying Edem because he was black and African. Some of Pam’s friends turned their backs on the couple. The two married anyway in fall 2009, but the experience left an impression, and the following year they created the nonprofit Baobab People.

“If you grow up in a racist culture, and you’re never challenged, you grow up racist,” said Pam Dzunu, who works in Washington University’s Office for International Students and Scholars as an instructor in the English Language Programs. Pam acknowledged that she held some racist assumptions growing up in rural Mississippi and only started to question them when she went to Ethiopia after college  to teach English.

“I feel like having a diverse group of friends, and of course falling in love with Edem,  has been what challenged me and changed some of the thinking I had before,” she said.

Baobab People hopes to replicate that experience by bringing together people from different backgrounds to discuss sensitive issues such as race, religion, cultural practices and discrimination.

Story of the Baobab tree

The group is named for the Baobab tree, which grows in Edem Dzunu’s native Ghana and is known for its huge trunk, which is impossible for any one person to embrace.

“In Ghana, they liken knowledge to the Baobab tree,” said Edem, who after marrying Pam also started working as an English Language Programs instructor at Washington University. “Knowledge is bigger than one person. We need many different people to be able to come together to embrace it.”

In November 2010, the Dzunus organized their first event, a daylong Cross-Cultural Communications and Awareness Conference. People discussed how to communicate more effectively and inclusively.

“Everyone has a story to tell,” Pam Dzunu said. “And nobody’s story is insignificant. I’ve learned that there are people in our communities who are hurt because their stories haven’t been heard.”

That first conference drew more than 50 attendees and has become an annual event.

After the early success, Baobab People organized more events to try and spark dialogue. The organization hosted diversity and inclusion training workshops; Cultural Crossroads Luncheons, during which people met to talk about different cultures over a cuisine they may have never tried before; and the “Nyaseto,” or “Listening Ear,” Series, which involved relaxed presentations and roundtable discussions in people’s living rooms.

“Pam and Edem work tirelessly to find ways to create bridges to understanding for people of different backgrounds,” said Kathy Steiner-Lang, assistant vice chancellor and director of the Office for International Students and Scholars. “They value the importance of dialogue and communication between people, either one-on-one or in small groups, and have a strong belief in the power of these activities to bring people together and to overcome conflicts in our society.”

Aim isn’t for all to agree

“I’m personally very overwhelmed by the responses that we get after every program that we put on,” Edem Dzunu said. “People are invested.”

The goal for a Baobab People event isn’t for everyone to agree. “Of course we would like people to change if their views are completely out of step,” Edem Dzunu said. “But difference is not a bad thing. The only thing is, if you’re going to disagree with somebody, we’ve got to disagree in a way that still preserves everyone’s dignity.”

One challenge the Dzunus have had with running the group is keeping so many activities going. Pam Dzunu is a full-time instructor specializing in legal English, while her husband teaches English here, as well as at Fontbonne University and at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He also has been writing his dissertation and expects to earn his doctorate in ethics next month. In November 2014, the two became parents to their now 2-year-old son, Etornam, whom they are in the process of adopting.

Our Police, Our Community

9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16
Learn more: http://bit.ly/25VqIvC

Thanks to the Dzunus’ tireless efforts and help from volunteers, Baobab People still has a robust schedule of events. The next one is “Our Police, Our Community” on April 16 at Fontbonne University. The event is the third in a three-part series that brings together members of the local police, FBI agents, students, educators, religious leaders, social workers and the general public to come up with responses to the challenges of policing. Visit the Baobab People website for more information on activities.

“[Edem and Pam’s] commitment to intercultural understanding permeates every aspect of their lives,” said Karen Schwelle, director of English Language Programs at Washington University. “Through their work with Baobab People, the two extend their work into the broader St. Louis community in a way I really admire.”

Baobab People also leads cross-cultural training at Youth In Need and is in talks with other workplaces in the area about starting similar programs. Eventually, Baobab People would like to lead intercultural field trips around the United States and abroad so people can experience different cultures firsthand.

“There are so many misconceptions in our society,” Pam Dzunu said. “The misconceptions my family and friends had about Edem. The misconceptions that a lot of people in our culture have about Muslims. The misconceptions that people have about kids in foster care. There are so many …  and that’s why we want to have these conversations. We think that the best way to correct misconceptions is for people to be friends, for people to get to know, for people to have a conversation.”

It’s a slow process. It took three years of marriage before Edem was welcomed into Pam’s family. But Baobab People, like the tree it’s named after, is built for longevity. It’s all right if it takes time for us to grow, as long as we’re growing together.

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