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Article Listing | Search Articles | More Articles in Employers | More Articles by Simma Lieberman

A Passion for Diversity

by Simma Lieberman - 01/05/2009
"There are successful people in the diversity field. They have a passion for diversity and they live their work. Whether or not they take their work home with them, their work is always driven by the values they live every day."
A Passion for Diversity
Some people have jobs that they go to because they have to make a living, and they get to express themselves after work. Some people have careers that they love, and have a hard time not taking home their work with them when they go home. And then there are successful people in the diversity field. They have a passion for diversity and they live their work. Whether or not they take their work home with them, their work is always driven by the values they live every day, and their lives are driven by the values they promote at work.

When organizations began to embrace diversity in the 1980s, many of them thought that diversity training was the answer. They thought that if every employee attended a diversity training class, biases, complaints and lawsuits would disappear and everyone would work together in harmony forever. There were two kinds of people engaged in diversity training, education and organizational development. There were those who thought of it as program or a trend. These people read a few books, took a train-the-trainer class or bought one in the mail and called themselves experts. The second group knew that it was a process, not a one day program and that in order to create change they needed to live it, learn it and continually develop their passion for it. They were cognizant of the need to integrate diversity into the business strategy of any organization and the rest of their lives. They also knew there were no quick fixes—that it took patience, and time—but change was possible.

The first group lost interest and went on to something else but people in the second group are still here helping to create change They’re working to create inclusive environments where all people can do their best work and have their individual skills and talents, recognized, appreciated and utilized.

I wanted to know more about this passion for diversity and where it came from. What drives some individuals to maintain their personal mission, vision and values despite resistance, challenges and naysayers. I interviewed four people whose passion for diversity is so great it’s like a magnetic force that continues to get stronger and attract everything in its path. These four people are Terry Howard, VP of Diversity for Texas Instruments; Michele Atlas from Diversity Journal; Deb Dagit, Executive Diversity Director at Merck; and, Edgar Quiroz, Director of Global Diversity Initiatives at Kaiser Permanente.

I asked all of them, Why did you get involved in diversity? Here are their stories:

Terry Howard, VP of Diversity at Texas Instruments, has a long-standing and personal connection with diversity. “As an African-American male, I’ve been involved in and experienced diversity my entire life. From a career standpoint, I actually got involved in this work by ‘default.’ During the mid 1980s, I managed a group charged with delivering employment and EEO service for AT&T. Our client base was very diverse and that itself heightened my interest in this work. The challenge of fostering awareness of that growing diversity and leveraging it was most intriguing to me. In 1986, I read the Hudson Institute report Diversity 2000. This ignited me and I knew I wanted to help break new ground.”

Terry’s passion and his involvement in diversity continue to grow. He now supports 15 diversity affinity groups at Texas Instruments, as well as the many business level diversity committees and their annual diversity conferences. “In between, I write a monthly internal diversity column and issue periodic diversity tips on the full range of diversity topics, and I speak on diversity at our meetings and retreats.” He takes his passion for diversity and inclusion to the community, having participated in a community march against hate. “One of the things I’m most proud of is my role in the successful integration of religion and faith in the workplace amid lots of skepticism.” He said that people were still talking about the standing room only session “When Traditional Religion Meets Sexual Orientation”. When asked what drives him his reply was, “My passion is driven by my curiosity about the far-reaching implications of diversity and getting organizations to see that connection. It never stops.”

Deb Dagit, Executive Director of Diversity for Merck, told me that she had lived months at a time from when she was 11 to 16 in the Shriners Hospital from a disabling bone condition. She was there with other children who had bone and burn disabilities from all over the world. “I got to talk to kids from Iran and all of the Middle-East who were living in the hospital. We had a lot in common and we spent long periods of time together.”

During the time she spent in public school she was separated from the rest of her class. She had to sit right next to the teacher’s desk and was not allowed to go to recess with the other kids. In describing her experiences she says, “Because of how I was treated, I related to other kids who were minorities. Issues of fairness, respect and inclusion were very important to me.” After graduation, Dagit tutored people who came home from Vietnam after the war. She explained that there is a disproportionate amount of disabled people who are veterans and who are from minority backgrounds, and that along with diversity issues amongst disabled people with different backgrounds, there are diversity issues around different types of disabilities. “Some disabilities are more stigmatized than others,” she noted.

Her experiences inspired her to become a diversity leader. She traveled to Washington and spoke to lawmakers about the importance of passing the ADA. “During that time I thought about struggles and victories like Brown vs. the Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act, and the importance of civil rights for all people.”

“In my first corporate job I was told very matter of factly that I would never get beyond an 8 or 9 dollar and hour entry level job. I began working in the non-profit sector primarily on disability issues, but after a few years I knew that I needed to be in corporate America, that they needed to see diversity and inclusion as important to their business. This time when I went back my initial salary was $70,000.”

Deb says her passion for diversity only continues to grow. She is a founding member of the Conference Board Workforce Council on Diversity. “I have never been around anything else that keeps me stimulated 24 hours a day. I rarely read anything that is not in the field. I have a global vision and I want to create the kind of world where people are kind to other people the kind of world that is healthy for our children.”

Edgar Quiroz is the Director of Diversity Work Initiatives at Kaiser Permanente. He told me, “I never got involved with diversity, diversity got involved with me.” He grew up in San Francisco in a diverse neighborhood with African-Americans, Asians, Caucasians and Latinos like himself. While attending high school in the 1970s he was active in community student leadership. “I organized youth in underserved communities city wide to help them with jobs, careers, and educational enhancement. All job descriptions never said diversity but always managed to weave diversity into it. My father and I walked the picket lines with Cesar Chavez.” He began working as an outreach worker at SF General Hospital as a youth outreach worker. “I worked with kids who were homeless, drug and alcohol addicted, prostitutes, battered and abused. One of the most important things that I’ve learned and that I impart to people in my personal life and in my work is the fact that any negative experiences with one person from any group was not the whole group and does not represent the whole population.”

Today Edgar says he is privileged to be the Director of Diversity Work Initiatives for Kaiser Permanente where he has worked for 20 years. During this time he was a founding board member and past president of the Kaiser Permanente Latino Association. “I chose Kaiser Permanente because their values around diversity and cultural competency are aligned with my own. My primary three areas of involvement are: 1) How do we enhance cultural competency skills medical care; 2) How do we give care to diverse populationsin cultural competent ways; and, 3) How do we grow membership in target population segments.”

Diversity impacts his personal life every day. His family is bi-racial, and it is important to him that they all know, embrace and celebrate both his Latino culture and the African-American culture. “My passion for diversity has increased to a point that far exceeded any of my expectations. It’s only gotten better and I maintain my lifetime relationships with mentors and colleagues. I love my work, and there is a lot more to do. Its hurts me every time there is a hate crime and the fact that there is a health disparity based on economics. As a country we have to pay more attention to populations that have been ignored so more people have access to good health care. I remain optimistic and hopeful. I am inspired by all other people who are also working for change.”

Michele Atlas began her career working for the Rochester Business Alliance, an organization that began in Rochester, New York but is expanding to other areas of the USA. Michele was hired to create vocational rehabilitation services for people with disabilities. After the first year, she was asked to represent the Rochester Business Alliance at the Workforce Diversity Network, a local non-profit organization that is now creating a nationwide diversity network. “I didn’t know a lot about other areas of diversity beyond disability, but as I began to learn about all the other dimensions, diversity and inclusion became so important to me and I kept learning and expanding my knowledge base about every component.” As a representative, Michele got to meet diversity leadership in various kinds of organizations. She learned more about diversity initiatives and issues that organizations were dealing with. “I felt a very strong affinity for this work. I went from being a representative to the Diversity Workforce Network to serving on the board and becoming a part time staff member; working with the Executive director, and coordinating membership and organizing our national conference. I love the spirit of the other people who do this kind of work. My passion comes from being a part of something that is so good for the world at so many levels. I’m excited by other cultures, and I am part of an incredible community called the Mosaic Partnership where leaders in our region are partnered with someone from a different race and participate in group coaching sessions.”

Michele talked about how crucial it is for people in the health care field to be culturally competent. Besides her part time work with WDN, she consults, coaches and trains people who employ people with disabilities to be more culturally competent. “My learning points have been to honestly assess my own biases and to then be able to help other people assess their own and feel safe. Learning about my own biases has been very liberating and other people I work with have said that it is true for them. If we want to move forward from diversity to inclusion we have to identify our subtle biases and work through them. I hope I never stop learning.”

Although these four individuals are from different industries and came to diversity work from different experiences and backgrounds, they share certain qualities and experiences that contribute to their passion for diversity. From Deb’s voracious reading of diversity books to Michele’s personal involvement with the Mosaic Partnership, we see that these four remarkable individuals have all cultivated lifestyles that support their passion for diversity. They live and breathe diversity—both coming from diverse backgrounds and seeking out diverse interactions and experiences. They have all adopted learning orientations so they can continue to develop their own cultural competence and help others to do the same. Moreover, as we saw with Edgar’s work with underserved communities and Terry’s work in integrating religion in the workplace, the passion of these four diversity leaders is driven by a lot of ‘Cs’: courage, concern, and commitment to diversity initiatives. Be it Terry’s commitment to helping organizations understand the implications of diversity, Deb’s global goals for a better world, Edgar’s views on what this country needs to better meet the health needs of its diverse population, or Michele’s emphasis on breaking down barriers through helping people safely address their own biases, this is truly a visionary group of professionals. Most importantly, their visions are long-term, powerful, and important ones that they unrelentlessly move forward a day at a time. These are the kinds of diversity leaders that we need working in organizations of all kinds.

For an organization to successfully leverage the diversity of its organization to improve its performance three concurrent imperatives must be in place. First, diversity must be part of your overall business strategy and, secondly, your organization must move from representation and numbers to inclusion at every level. Finally, you will only be successful if you bring in diversity leaders who not only have knowledge of but a passion for diversity.

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