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

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