Contributor Spotlight: Jen Marshall Duncan – Wife, mother, teacher, blogger

multicultural bloggers interracial bloggers mixed couple biracial children

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.

Jen Marshall Duncan has been in an interracial relationship for almost 20 years. She and her husband have three biracial children ages 7-11. She lives in a diverse urban community in Iowa and works as an alternative high school teacher in an extremely white, rural community. Her commute allows her to experience two different worlds and deal with very different cultures. Her goal is to spread the power of empathy–recognizing and sharing the feelings of others.  Read Jen’s interview with The Parent Dujour.  Follow Jen on Google +, Twitter and Facebook.  Visit her blog, Empatheia.


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.

Patience, loyalty, and positivity also impact my identity outside of work. I am very patient with my children and with the people I see each day–I don’t often freak out when someone cuts me off in traffic,  I just let them in. I am loyal to my husband (together for 17 years and counting!) and to my friends (some of whom I’ve held dear to me for more than 30 years.) I am a “glass half full” kind of person, who can see something good in everyone I encounter; and I’m not afraid to smile at anyone I meet.

What are your fondest childhood memories related to your cultural heritage?

My mother was born in Germany to a German mother and a Lithuanian father. They moved to the U.S. when she was 5. They knew no English, had no family here, came here with nothing but a suitcase and a dream. Many of my fondest childhood memories come from visiting my maternal grandparents. My German grandmother (Oma) and her friend would have cheesecake bake-offs and name me the judge. I would sit at the good table with a German lace tablecloth and the fine china, tasting their home-made cheesecake. The two women eyed me as I sampled their sweets, waiting for me to choose a winner in their friendly competition. Food and family make some of my most cherished memories.

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?

I wrote a post about how we met on Multicultural Familia. Read it here

In what ways are you and your spouse different?  In what ways are you alike?

In some ways we are such total opposites it’s like we’re black and white (oh, wait…WE ARE ;-)  He loves eating meat, I am a vegetarian. He drinks soda pop daily, I only drink water. He stays up late and sleeps late, I am early to bed and early to rise. When listening to music he pays attention to the beat, while I pay attention to the words. He gets road rage at every car attempting to cut him off, I smile and wave them in. I like mayo and he’s Miracle Whip all the way. You get the picture…

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?

I have always wanted to be a writer. I kept diaries when I was a kid, and I wrote poetry and stories. Writing was always my outlet. I dreamt of taking my writing to another level, but never knew exactly how to do that. A blogging project with my students in 2010 really inspired me to start a personal blog where I could share a different perspective.

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?

I have three children. An 11.5 year old son, a soon-to-be 10 year old daughter, and a soon-to-be 8 year old daughter. I’ve only written about them a couple of times because I want to save them from any embarrassment I might cause. But I may have to write more about them–they are such characters! My favorite post about my daughters is “Raising Confident Mixed Girls” because it features a sample of their vlog. It makes me smile every time I watch it! Despite our many daily struggles, they delight me. They are growing into strong, wonderful young women. They have tons of videos they’ve made on our computer and I’m thinking about adding more of their little shows to my blog in the future. My favorite post about my son is one showing lots of pictures of him dressed in various superhero costumes in celebration of the latest biracial Spider-Man. I loved looking back at his obsession with heroes, seeing how it has evolved, and realizing that he will always be my favorite superhero.

What is your personal mission?  What do you seek to achieve in your lifetime?

My mission is to help make the world a better place. That’s totally subjective, I know, I know. What’s better to me might not be better to someone else; so let me be a little more specific. There are people in this world who feel alone. There are people who feel like no one understands them. My goal is to listen to a bunch of those people and try to help them realize that they are not alone, they are not so different from everyone else. I can’t listen to the whole world or empathize with everybody, so I’m working on my little corner of the planet. I really listen hard to the kids in my life–my children and my students–and try to make them know that no matter what, they are not alone.

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?

I grew up in a diverse area near Chicago and then moved to Iowa for college. Aside from a brief period of time living in Miami Beach in the early 90’s, I haven’t lived outside of Iowa. My state isn’t all corn and soy, farmers in overalls (though we do have all of that here!) There is much more to it than they show in the media at caucus time. I live in a very culture-rich area near a university. Graduate students from all over the world come and go as they work on their advanced degrees.

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?

Stay strong. Stay true to your beliefs. Keep loving each other. Make your family unit as tight and close-knit as it can be.  Establish your family’s own routine and rituals, without being afraid to create new holidays or celebrations that capture the essence of each family member’s heritage and experiences. If you do all that, then the outside world can’t touch you. No one can break down your bond of love and togetherness, not with their disapproving looks or their inappropriate comments or their harsh judgments. Make your family strong and confident with who you all are, then shine that radiance out on the world to show them how beautiful it is to be in a mixed family.