Diversity Awareness for Effective Organizations

Diversity Awareness for Effective Organizations Models of Diversity and Role Awareness

By Bill Say, M.A.

I want to thank and acknowledge Process Work and Arny and Amy Mindell for their immense contributions to diversity awareness work and for how they have deeply influenced my work. Process Work rests upon Deep Democracy, the philosophy and practice that all people, perspectives, feelings, and mind states are important. As a testament to its efficacy, Process Work has facilitated diversity work with some of the most conflicted and polarized groups in the world, including with Israeli/Palestinian issues, community meetings with LGBT activists and neo-conservative groups, group work with Black Panthers and the KKK, post-war reconciliation work in the Balkans, and post-Apartheid work in South Africa.

Let me suggest a main goal of diversity awareness: the experience of home for all. Here, home is a symbol for some common goals of diversity work: inclusion, welcoming environments, and valued members. If you consider experiences when you felt welcomed, included, and valued in contrast to times when you felt marginalized, you might agree that this is a vital goal. Diversity awareness and this kind of "home" supports healthy team work, communication, relationships, and greater organizational effectiveness. In this article, I’d like to offer a few ideas and tools to help promote welcome, inclusivity, and efficacy.

Diversity is simply the many forms of life. Diversity awareness can be defined as the process of noticing differences, as well as the attitude that wants to welcome and open to the multitude of people, perspectives, and life experiences.

Here is some brief context: diversity work was born out of the inequities and abuses that have been inflicted upon people for reason of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, age, and other crucial factors. While much valuable work has been done to address such inequities, there is obviously much more work that needs to be undertaken.

If we think of our overall goals of diversity, are our models of diversity inclusive enough to get us there? Models are like maps. A clear and inclusive enough model will help us get to our destination and our goals.

Here are a few ideas about forming inclusive models of diversity:

1) An inclusive model of diversity includes your analysis of diversity situations and issues, both past and present day.

2) The model may also contain your group's philosophies, visions, goals, practices and actions, ideally representing and including the input of your various members and stakeholders.

An inclusive model and practice of diversity needs to focus on both internal and external factors. For example, the external step of recruiting a more diverse staff or board of directors often needs internal and relational work, including the awareness that is needed to really welcome, utilize and retain a greater diversity of members.

In this article I will mostly focus upon the internal and relational levels.

Another suggestion is the view that every person and group is diverse; diversity is not external to us. This attitude, I believe, helps us come together. A group may certainly lack particular kinds of diversity in its makeup; but anyone and any group, no matter how seemingly homogenous, is diverse. If we include in our definition and model of diversity gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, age, physical and mental ability, socio-economic level or class, political view, nationality, perspective and our styles or thinking, relating and communicating, you might agree that this includes all of us.

We can’t escape diversity because it’s too big of a phenomenon. Life is diverse. This is not to say that differences don't mean anything or that there aren't important differences that influence equity, privilege, or marginalization. There absolutely are. And any group, even the most homogenous ones, can explore their own diverse nature and diversity issues and grow in this way.

Another related suggestion I have about creating a more inclusive model of diversity is that it includes both objective and subjective realities. Objective information, statistics, benchmarks, and measurable phenomena and results are obviously important to move towards success in diversity work. Subjective realities are also important. For example, feelings about each other concerning our human differences are nearly impossible to quantify or sometimes even point to, but may nevertheless make the difference between environments that attract and retain members and those that signal a lack of welcome to diverse members. We may be in compliance with external measures or ideals, but again, if the internal and relational work is absent, these may not achieve our goals.

Now, related to objective and subjective realities and structures, is the tool of role awareness. A role can be seen as a position or perspective. Roles are important in our organizations. There are the objective and structural roles of CEO, executive director, program manager, board member, etc. But there are also subjective or psychological roles that also inhabit and impact our groups. For example, there are the roles of critic, supporter, rebel, outsider, insider, etc. With the goal of home in mind, I offer that the healthiest “homes (organizations)” include all of their members, roles, and their relationships.

A few of the central roles in diversity work are the relatively mainstream, privileged, or central role; the relatively minority role; and the marginal role. These roles seem to be pretty universal in our groups and communities, in our families and other relationships, and even within our own selves. To me, it’s not so much the problem that these roles exist but it’s vital how aware we are of them, how they relate to each other, and how chronically they stay in their given places. Of course if privileged and marginal ones stay too long in their respective positions we have equity, relationship, and communication problems.

Why do I suggest the framework of roles as opposed to naming the specific individuals? Firstly, roles go beyond any one individual. The nature of life is fluid, and roles move and even switch places. In one moment you may be the marginal one, in the next you may have the central place. And most importantly, we can intentionally switch roles to enhance our awareness of diverse perspectives, promote understanding, de-escalate conflicts, reduce polarities, and create a deeper sense of community. Furthermore, the privilege or rank connected to roles can also shift, as do the awareness and perspectives provided. This has huge ramifications for creating greater awareness, equity, and community in our organizations.

While there are clearly very real tendencies that result in inequity and marginalization, the actual moment to moment flow of roles and their associated rank also move. And for me, this is crucial in reducing the polarities that can arise when addressing even the deepest and most disturbing diversity issues. In a future article, I’ll detail some of the complex factors that comprise rank and privilege. For now, suffice to say that rank is a huge and impactful phenomenon that influences most all of our relationships and communication, for better and worse.

For example, even in highly conflicted groups dealing with bias, marginalization, or unhealthy power dynamics, who suffers and who inflicts suffering are often not clearly separated roles. Privileged ones and marginal ones can sometimes resemble each other and even may behave similarly though one may be more chronically marginal or privileged. We tend to share roles, and we can learn from them and each other.

The “other” is the person, group, or experience that is not “me,”or  not “us.” Role awareness suggests that the “other” is me, or may be in some version, some of the time As a practice, the “other” as me provides ways for us to understand, learn, and grow beyond our identities, usual roles, biases and even beyond tolerance to deeper community and compassion. This is not in any way meant to minimize or negate abuse or the real ways we need to grow and learn. Role work can help provide avenues to explore and grow our awareness about some of the ubiquitous roles we encounter in life, whether marginal, privileged, sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic, etc. Simultaneously, role work lets us process vital diversity issues while not saddling any one person with a fixed identity which makes even very challenging issues much more safe to explore.

Obviously, work on very troubling issues needs a lot of care and often preliminary work is needed to prepare the group for the exploration. Negotiating safety and communication styles and ability, to name a few common issues, is often a requirement before other issues can be addressed.

Again, with the goal of home in mind, can you be a “home” for all the roles within your group? Can your group be a “home” for all of its roles, members, stakeholders and perspectives?

Here is an exercise to explore group roles within yourself:

  1. Bring to mind your organization or group. Then think of an issue that you would like to see addressed in the group.
  2. Imagine two people (roles) that come forward to debate this issue. Call one “mainstream” and one “other.” What does “mainstream” say? What does “other” say? Listen carefully to what each has to say.
  3. Which side is closer to your own view on the issue? And how have you also experienced the other perspective? Can you embrace this part more?

Here are a few ways to use role awareness:

  1. You can work with roles internally to understand someone or a dynamic in your workplace.
  2. Your group can use inner work with roles to start gaining more ability to hold diverse or conflicted roles, perspectives, or styles.
  3. Your group can explore diverse or polarized roles in small or large groups. For example, the role of the one who is interested in diversity and the one who is not so interested in diversity. Each role can speak and then switch roles.