Living Diversity

August 22nd, 2010

In my capacity as Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer for the Darden School, I wanted to  welcome the students, faculty, and staff as they prepared to begin the Fall 2010 term last week. When I talk with leaders in business, government, and social profit organizations, nearly everyone is searching for a compelling message that communicates the importance of everyone’s participation in an inclusive environment in which to learn and work.

I was looking for the same thing.  Walking through the halls of Darden—the Classroom Building, The Abbott Center, the Faculty Office Building, Student Services, or Sponsor’s Hall, it was apparent to me that we constituted an extraordinarily diverse community in both overt and subtle ways.  I anticipated the myriad conversations that would unfold in those hallways in the coming months and I knew from experience that many would be positive, but many would be full of emotion and conflict.

What could I write that would help when people were most confused and emotional about diversity?  I came up with this:

“As you continue to broaden your perspectives on difference and diversity, it may help to understand and reflect on why diversity matters to our institution and to our community:

1.      Diversity has the potential to elevate performance, both individually and collectively. In an increasingly global and diverse world, being a proverbial diversity ostrich is just a bad idea.  Being professionally and personally successful in the coming years requires that you have a clear understanding of and comfort with people who are different from you.  Contrary to popular belief and rhetoric, diversity is not always good.  Sometimes it leads to dysfunction.  But when it is engaged and managed well, difference provides unparalleled benefits in performance, innovation, and satisfaction with the relationships in your life.

2.      Diversity challenges us to examine our values. Being happy and harmonious together with our differences is a nice place to be, but in fact in most situations, the harmony is a bit of an illusion.  Real harmony emerges in a diverse community only after the members of that community have challenged one another, listened to one another, felt reactive and frustrated with one another, and experienced empathy and understanding with one another, even when our positions are irreconcilable.  Difference is important because it makes us pay attention to assumptions we have likely not questioned:  “I am rarely if ever biased,” “Some people are always biased,” “Differences don’t matter that much,” “People don’t understand enough how differences matter.” By examining our values and assumptions about each other and about ourselves, we make ourselves more skillful and competent professionals and more enlightened individuals.

3.      Diversity provides the context for learning inside and outside of our classrooms or offices. The way we effectively enhance our performance and challenge our values is through learning.  Incorporating those lessons into practice is what creates sustainable change for us as individuals and for your workplace or community; and in participating in that change we allow our living and working environments to thrive.  Our ability to promote a place of learning in the face of difference is what will create sustained value.”

My hope is this message can help inspire more open thinking and dialogue.  One thing is clear to me, though.   How well we negotiate our differences as a community will shape the tone of our daily experiences with one another, and ultimately, our ability to thrive as an institution.

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