When I returned to my home town of Cleveland, Ohio to promote my new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I was excited. I couldn’t wait to see old friends, some of whom I had not seen since childhood. I was eager to show everyone what I had accomplished over the years. It would be a real coming out party. And it turned out to be just that. It was a great event and I really enjoyed reconnecting with family, friends, and colleagues.
But the best part of the event was not the connection with the old faces (sorry, seasoned faces?…ok, this is not getting any better…). The best part happened when, shortly after the event got started, a seemingly endless line of short people enter the venue. To my surprise and delight, my youngest nephew’s class concluded their school day with a field trip to my book event. And this was going to be great because now, I would also be able to influence young minds, too!
I probably did make some impression on the kids, but if I did, that was the backstory for me. In the hour that followed after they settled into their seats, these 11—13 year olds educated me and the rest of the adults in the audience. I wanted to engage them in discussion about three big ideas about Leveraging Difference: 1) the importance of having a strategy, 2) being able to see, understand, and engage multiple differences, and 3) endeavoring to stay focused on larger goals without being distracted. They stunned us all with their variety of insights, but none were more provocative than their thoughts about distractions and diversions.
Now as we all know, our kids live in an incredibly stimulating environment with video, social media, and myriad technologies to grab their attention. And we all know that attention deficit issues are ever-present in dealing with educating kids, right? Except this groups of kids violated those assumptions. They were certainly regular kids, full of energy, and excited about being in this sun-drenched university meeting room overlooking the Cleveland landscape. There was no shortage of “herding cats” activity going on. But once they focused, they provided a number of gems:
Martin: …the third big idea: you have to keep your eye on the larger goal. What do I mean by that?
1st student: Paying attention to what’s really important.
Martin: What keeps people from remembering what’s really important?
1st student: People get distracted…like something happens in the stock market and they are not focusing on their business. They’re trying to figure out how to get out from under.
2nd student: Sometimes, in order to run a business, you have to be able to change things. Sometime people let greed get in the way of their goals. They can be too greedy for money. Like a fool is easily separated from his money? If you don’t lead your business well, you could easily lose it all.
3rd student : I believe that personal goals get in the way. In order to do well, you sometimes have to put personal goals aside to achieve the larger goal, or else you sacrifice the larger goal.
OK, so what does this have to do with being “comfortably black?” There was something about hearing these words from the mouths of young people that compelled me to ask myself: what distracts me? I decided to examine what was getting in the way of how I was sharing what I was learning from the book with the audiences I met. I realized that I had two great distractions I continue to work on:
1) Being the “rock star.” When I arrive at a place to teach a class, give a talk, or consult with a client, I am invited to be the center of attention. This is an awfully seductive position to be in because I know that in these circumstances, I love the spotlight. But invariably, that impulse to bask in the limelight makes it very difficult to actually help my students learn, affect my audiences constructively, or help my clients change. I am preoccupied with what I need to do to look smart, sophisticated and suave (whether or not I can execute on it!)
2) Being “comfortably” black. As a result of #1, I have been vigilantly challenging myself (especially in my diversity work) not settle into being “the black authority.” I find it appealing to show how knowledgeable and insightful I am by using race as a reference for my teachings and conversations. But the people I work with often want to engage and learn about other differences as well. Many times, these other differences are more important in their lives than race. I have to do a better job of doing my homework and learning about differences beyond race. I have to be open to feeling anxiety, being unsure of myself, even reacting defensively in talking about and working with other differences. I won’t always be the expert; I’ll have to learn, too.
In these situations, I have a personal mantra that I actually speak to myself, under my breath, or out loud: How can I be helpful to this class/audience/client in our time together? Just reminding myself prior to an engagement and then during the encounter helps me to refocus on the larger goal.
I am so grateful to my youngest nephew’s class.