Cultural Engagement Playbook aims to build deeper connections


A year that saw people divided by culture, race, politics and more, as well as physically distanced to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, was the inspiration for Abdesalam Soudi, a Pitt lecturer in linguistics, to create the Cultural Engagement Playbook.

Abdesalam Soudi“The scary part of COVID-19 is that people start looking for jobs because they start to feel detached from the workplace,” he said.

“Many Americans are still working from home. We can’t afford to put our relationships on hold,” he said, particularly between people who want to work in-person and those who want to stay remote. “How can we work to discover deeper connections with others?”

This is even more important, he said, in a time when hate crimes are increasing and scholars are trying to find ways to help, such as those who gathered at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center this week in Pittsburgh for the first Eradicate Hate Global Summit.

Soudi said he’s passionate about creating workplace environments “for people to really get to know each other. Sometimes we work with somebody for a number of years and you think you know them, but you don’t.”

In Morocco where he grew up, his mother and other women would gather every day at the community well or under the shade of a tree at their home and talk about their personal lives and challenges. “These spaces, and many others, brought many people together every single day. Talking to others about issues we face and our struggles was an integral aspect of our lives in our village, as it is all over the world.”

The “aha moment” came last year, with the forced isolation caused by the pandemic,  he said. “When I filed this innovation with the Pitt Innovation Institute, I realized how much we really want, even when we're in person, opportunities to get to know each other.

“The idea is really reflecting on the gaps that separate us,” Soudi said. “We came to realize that it's important to create space for conversations to discover deeper connections and build bridges and learn about each other to create safe, healthy and inclusive environment for everyone.”

Research he conducted with Jeannette South-Paul, former chair of family medicine at Pitt who retired last year, on existing training modules found that more than 80 percent of interviewees reported needing additional trainings; more than 70 percent felt the training was “top-down” or had no lasting impact; and 58.3 percent found available training to be disengaging and done just to “check the box.”

To try to delve deeper, the Cultural Engagement Playbook was developed by Soudi, South-Paul and Shelome Gooden, assistant vice chancellor for research for the humanities, arts, social sciences and related fields and a linguistics professor.

Soudi has used the playbook in his classes and in the School of Law and School of Medicine. It’s also been used at Vanderbilt University, Penfield High School in New York and with several lawyers in the Pittsburgh Legal Coalition. 

The playbook comes in a box with a journal and instructions on exercises to create purposeful cultural self-examination of how our own lived experiences influence our attitudes.

The training is a three-step process: A pre-training questionnaire addresses individual needs and desired outcomes, followed by an in-person, virtual of hybrid workshop where participants engage in activities backed by research-proven methodologies, and then a post-training evaluation and technical report based on discovery and workshop results.

The pre-training survey asks you to say who you are by providing five defining characteristics. It also asks what do diversity and inclusion mean to you and what are their value in your life; what is the best way a workplace can create a diverse and inclusive environment; what experiences have you had in a cross-cultural environment in general; and more.

One of the trainings involves putting three or four items that mean something to you or identify who you are in the box. Items can be physical or material items, such as photos or jewelry, but they also can be quotes, family stories, important narratives, jokes, experiences, favorite expressions or words, or photos of larger items.

People are asked to come to the training prepared to talk about two of the items: What do the items mean to you? How did you decide on the items? Was it hard? Did you consult with anyone?

Soudi noted that every encounter between people is cross-cultural, even within your household.

The Cultural Engagement Playbook is designed to cause “a purposeful cultural self-examination of how their lived experiences, their personal journeys, affect their attitudes, and the goal is to encourage empathy for others, and critical examination of our own biases, and to gain an appreciation of diversity, and create sort of a sense of community. In other words, we want to get people to meet people, rather than stereotypes.”

He said this project also “aligns nicely with the Humanities at Work initiative that I lead at Pitt which highlights the practical value of the humanities and is helping build strategic partnerships to track the job market and cultivate varied career paths for humanities.

“It is important that we showcase the role of humanities for improving life and work especially because humanities face a tough battle in employment. This is mainly because businesses may not always fully understand the scope and applicability of our practices in the humanities (diversity, collaboration, engagement, teamwork, critical thinking).”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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