Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Diversity Diva-Teaching the Value of Differences

Below is the column that I wrote for the Kansas City Star that ran last month. Although the column is directed at parents raising children, I think it's equally applicable to the employees, faculty and staff who work in educational institutions.
I'm someone who worked to put myself through college and then later in life, put myself through law school. In law school, even though starting in my late 20s, I was considered a non-traditional student because I wasn't fresh out of high school. 

As I learned then and as I see now in my life, the environment of higher education, more than most, truly has an openness to new ideas. It's almost palpable. People aren't perfect at colleges. And plenty of people bring biases to their education and to their jobs and take the same ones with them when they leave or graduate. 

But compared to the rest of society, educational institutions are more open and liberal to different ways of thinking. I love that. It means that people tend to be less defensive when discussions of difference, diversity and discrimination come up. And because even the smallest college attracts a variety of people, it means that people have already begun questioning the comfortable viewpoints of the world they bring to a college environment. In fact, for many - students and employees of a college or university alike - that environment is the first place they find their world views challenged.

Most people in a workplace find doing the job they were hired to do to be the most important "task" they have to master. And, of course, that is the key priority. However, doing almost any job involves cooperation and collaboration with other people. Therefore, while diversity may seem one of those topics that are a long distance from the bottom line, actually dealing with differences is totally intertwined with the bottom line. 

The single most important aspect that a college campus must embrace is understanding that differences come in all stripes and patterns. It's not just about race or gender or sexual orientation or any of the major and important differences that people bring to the table. Sometimes the difference may be as seemingly subtle as counseling the student who feels people don't understand how she talks because she has a thick "rural" accent. Other times the issue may be understanding that the student who has a large number of tattoos on his arm isn't any less serious about his education than his more "clean cut" peers. The examples are endless.

Not only do people have a large number of differences to deal with in a college setting, there are also a large number of contradictions to navigate. Sometimes the contradictions are no more than the ones in your head between the person in front of you and the stereotype you've developed from limited information.

Colleges are a great breeding ground for encouraging good habits in dealing with and support other people. The best habit of all for any one, in any position, in a college environment is developing the art of respectful engagement. With respectful engagement you treat all people as being of value and you have a genuine curiosity about figuring out what makes them who they are and of doing so without judgment.

While that sounds easy, it takes conscious observation to make sure that you are actually practicing it.


Parents, teach your kids the value of differences

I’ve recently found myself speaking at educational institutions about diversity as much as I talk to corporations and organizations.

Speaking at schools reminds me that how people view and respond to the differences of others starts long before they enter the workforce.

For many, college becomes the place where young adults break through the comfort barriers of their upbringing.

I recently talked to a young black woman who is urban born and bred and attends a rural, predominantly white college.

She was dealing with fundamental differences on every level and sought my advice.

Some of her complaints about going to a predominantly white institution as a racial minority were depressingly familiar, legitimate and painful.

But what I also heard in what she shared was a naive, self-centered surprise of how the world outside her figurative back yard operated.

The details of our conversation haunted me because it highlighted how our “villages” generally do a poor job of preparing its future adults for the workplace when it comes to dealing with others. Especially if the others are different. And don’t let them be “too” different.

Generally speaking, we teach kids the importance of competition and accomplishment. We teach the importance of following rules and avoiding trouble. We may even throw in a few lessons on good citizenship and good sportsmanship.

But most parents — with few exceptions — don’t really raise their kids to value the differences in others. And much of that is because you can’t teach what you don’t know.

Dealing with diversity is a mind-set, not a checklist. It’s not knowing this many facts about that racial group or the history of all religious groups, for example. It’s about having a comfort level with difference and with change.

That’s an ideal way of thinking children develop before they begin their higher education. And the young adults who hone those thinking skills in college have a distinct edge when they enter the work world.

Unless you are rich and will have an entry-level job as the CEO of your family’s company, no employee will ever have the luxury of being an expert only on people who are exactly like them.

No matter how much privilege you enter the work world with because of your personal demographics, you’re going to have to work with and for other people. No matter how much historical and current discrimination a group you are a member of experience, you’re going to have work with and for other people.

You can’t control what those differences will be and dismissing the differences of others because of discomfort, inconvenience or resentment will only take you so far.

So I have a public service announcement to people currently parenting our future workforce: Remind your children early and often that it’s not all about them. That other races, religions, physical abilities, sexual orientations and just plain different ways of looking at the world exist.

It’s not about de-emphasizing anything about your family, community or heritage. It’s merely about preparing them to coexist with others.

They’re going to learn — whether you prepare them or not.

For more information about Michelle T. Johnson and to contact there about speaking at your school or conducting diversity workshops please call her at 816-225-8153 or write her at Michelle@MichelleTJohnson.com

Acquiring Knowledge vs. Task Completion: Professional Development or Training?

Conferences, seminars, workshops, webinars, professional associations, professional affiliations required, suggested, encouraged, supported – as professionals we are usually provided training (often on the job) to successfully complete the positions we are hired to perform, yet are we often provided and do we take advantage of the opportunity for professional development?

Professional development expands our skills and knowledge base in practical ways that are applicable to the true role of a professional, in any position and throughout our careers.  Both training and professional development have valuable roles in our field.  We believe that there is often confusion regarding training and professional development with people assuming that they are the same and provide similar benefits to the work that we do.

Taking the approach that both are necessary, we acknowledge that understanding the two areas and why they are required for success in your career is important. There is a clear difference in how we utilize what we learn in each venue, one is a day to day approach and is task oriented; the other improves your approach to your work and how we perform as professionals.

Below, both are operationally defined for this article.

Training: defined activities geared toward learning the specifics of your position, the “what to do when” that leads to task completion.  Training is often provided within your institution or by other professionals well versed in the target area or information being taught.  Training can be viewed as the pragmatic approach being applied to the particular situation.

 Professional Development: the acquisition and integration of knowledge that underscores your approach to any position or situation and provides the “why and how to do it” that is the foundation of professionalism in everything that you do.  Professional development occurs at conferences, within professional associations or from colleagues and mentors that share their experience and perspective; it can be viewed as the theoretical based approach applied to the practical situation.

Review the following differences in the examples provided below:

Training: increases your ability to understand and perform the task at hand.
Professional Development: increases your ability to utilize the proper approach and make the best use of your time and resources, it increases your efficiency.

Training: provides the rationale to ask the question, “what do I do now?”
Professional Development: provides the process to “why I am doing it and how do I do it?”

Training: helps to improve the ability to recognize a challenge.
Professional Development: helps to identify the approach to overcoming the challenge.

Professional development provides the foundation to increase in our work the level of competency, the noted efficiency and professional approach necessary to continue to move forward in your career versus “keeping your job”. The key benefits of being active and involved in your professional associations and organizations will assist you beyond the normal “networking realm” and create skills and abilities that are transferrable and critical to both personal and professional life. 

Consider the following professional development opportunities:

Joining and Utilizing Membership within a Professional Association: membership is one thing, active membership is another. After paying your dues and “getting on the roster” become invested in the organization – read the constitution and by-laws, join a committee, become a Board member or officer – lead the charge – you have a responsibility as a professional to make sure that your membership is more than a few dollars and an occasional vote – it is a voice and example of the professional commitment to the work you do.

Active Participation in Workshops/Seminars: when attending a workshop or seminar, review the information, ask questions, plan to engage and be “present” during the session. In the current economic climate, attending professional conferences and seminars is becoming rare; when the opportunity presents itself to attend make the most of it! As a professional, share ideas and challenges as well as solutions, and never leave a workshop or seminar without at least three business cards – build that supportive network every chance you get.

Networking with Other Professionals: create a network of colleagues, within and external to your institution that you can have honest and direct dialogue with regularly.  Often our “academic islands” lead to stagnation and a sense of “being in this alone”. Change that situation by discussing best and promising practices, challenges in day to day duties and responsibilities and expand your understanding of professionalism.

Providing or Receiving Mentoring: successful mentoring relationships are reciprocal and help both mentors and mentees assess and understand the professional world from different perspectives and vantage points. Seeking appropriate and developmental mentor/mentee relationships will set the stage for growth and provide the opportunity to ask questions, collaborate, brainstorm ideas as well as share challenges and successes.

Set Goals: on a personal note, when establishing your goals for your professional development they must be realistic at the starting point, attainable within your abilities, achievable in your level of dedication, but most importantly, challenging. In order to gain the level of professionalism you are striving for, you must go beyond your comfort zone and be stretched; the resulting growth is yours and a testament to the field.

As professionals we often understand the need for training yet underestimate the importance of professional development.  The goal of this article was to highlight that training and professional development in concert create the well rounded professional who is competent in addressing the tasks and duties of his or her title and possesses the judgment and expertise necessary to do so with diligence and dedication. 

To continue the conversation, please feel free to contact us at the email addresses below.

Trent Ball, Associate Dean of Students (tball@semo.edu)
Valdis Zalite, Director of TRIO/Student Support Services (vzalite@semo.edu)
Academic Support Centers/TRIO
Southeast Missouri State University

Adapted from an article previously published in the ACPA’s Commission for Academic Support in Higher Education (CASHE) Corner Newsletter

Sticks and Stones No More

Joel Hermann – Saint Louis University

The onset of collegiate bullying and insensitivity towards students with differences has created a culture in which the “Words Can Never Hurt Me” clause becomes quite weak.

To take a stand against derogatory language, Special Olympics and an organization known as Best Buddies have launched the “Stop the R-Word” campaign.  Through this campaign, people are encouraged to pledge against using the word retard(ed) in their daily vernacular.  To learn more about the efforts, visit www.r-word.org.

On March 7, 2012, Special Olympics and Best Buddies held the National “Spread the Word to End the Word” Day.  In conjunction with this nation-wide event, Saint Louis University’s circle of Omicron Delta Kappa held a signature drive and encouraged students to be aware of how they use words. 

“ODK membership is comprised of some of the greatest leaders on campus.  As such, we wanted to encourage SLU students to follow our lead and eliminate this word from our vocabulary,” Julie Silver, Vice President of Saint Louis University’s ODK Circle, said.  “This was such a great cause and we see harmful language as such a nasty element of college life.  It’s our job, as leaders on campus, to take the first step towards educating our peers and making a change.”

In addition to spreading awareness and encouraging student, staff and faculty support throughout the day, the SLU ODK circle gathered nearly 250 pledges against using the r-word.

“I really enjoyed educating people about the National ‘Spread the Word’ Day event,” Silver said.  “It was great to see how many people were in support of the initiative.  As long as the goal of eliminating use of the word is present, then we are making great strides.”

The importance of People-First Language has become a large topic of discussion throughout colleges and universities.  Educating students that a classmate is a “person with a disability” versus a “disabled person” is not an easy task.  However, each small step forward makes the process worthwhile. 

Crisis Planning Workshop

Mark your Calendar!!!!
Friday, April 20th
Crisis Planning Workshop @ Drury University in Springfield, MO

Bring a team of 4 + for $25 per person. 
Session Topics:
·         What we can learn from Joplin
·         Identifying hazards and assessing risk and vulnerability
·         Emergency Planning: Re-evaluating your campus plans policies and procedures
·         Exercising your plans: Ensuring your campus emergency plans are actionable
·         Plus time to work with your team on your plan

Want more information? Contact Mindy Maddux, mmaddux@drury.edu