Event Offers Opportunity for Diversity Dialogue

A title was all it took to pique Paul Kohn’s curiosity about this year’s Diversity Roundtable event.

“I remember that this year’s program title involved fish not seeing water — language that was catchy enough to make me want to learn more — so I decided to register for the event,” said Kohn, vice provost for Enrollment Services.

In early June, faculty and staff members from across campus attended the roundtable titled “The Blindside: Self-Management of Fish Who Don’t See Water.” This was the first year that the event included morning sessions in addition to a lunch program.

Kohn, who has attended this and other diversity-focused events in the past, chooses to attend the events for two 
reasons.

“First off, opportunities to get together with colleagues and address elephants in the room related to diversity are important to me,” he said. “But I also feel like it’s important for leadership to practice what they preach. If we don’t support these types of events, why should we expect anyone else to?”

Prior to the event, Kohn mentioned that he hoped the event would offer an opportunity to reflect on his own attitudes toward 
diversity.

“I also hope to hear some discussion regarding the status divides on campus among faculty, staff, and students,” he added.

The morning kicked off with a presentation from Charlotte Hamlin, a diversity consultant who created the Diversity Drama training program. Hamlin shared stories about her own eye-opening experiences related to diversity, with one of her key messages being that perception often has more impact on what we think than reality does.

“I often see what I want to or expect to see,” Hamlin said. “And I may attribute causes of behavior to favor myself or the groups I belong to.”

Her parting advice was for the audience to focus on similarities to others — instead of differences — and to build communities based on these.

Following Hamlin’s presentation, several staff members shared their own diversity-related stories, which were followed by opportunities for the audience to discuss their experiences in small groups.

Danny Ingram, senior technical analyst from the Office of Information Technology, acted out a scene depicting an experience in which he is gay and in the military.

Associate Dean of Students and Director of Diversity Programs Stephanie Ray shared a story about her father, who was a sharecropper, and the friendship with a white man that would change their lives.

Cheryl Cofield, director for culture, diversity, and inclusion, and Pearl Alexander, senior director for people strategies (both in the Office of Human Resources [OHR]), also led a segment where people were encouraged to acknowledge their own prejudices.

For example, Cofield shared that several years ago, she was close to not hiring someone — who was completely qualified for the job — because of how the person dressed for the interview.

“Today is an opportunity to hear the truth of personal stories and continue our journey toward creating a culture of dialogue,” Cofield said. “Stories can act as a catalyst for self-discovery and connection, as well as our collective transformation. I hope that today’s events help to open our eyes and move us a step closer toward inclusive excellence.”

With a little help from the Diversity Dramatists, attendees had a chance to discuss their own thoughts about diversity-focused issues during the lunch program. 

The group performed skits that focused on topics ranging from not hiring someone because she “wasn’t a culture fit” to learning how to work with co-workers with different sexual orientations. Following each skit, faculty and staff had a chance to discuss each topic with those at their tables.

“I was extremely impressed with the programming,” said Kohn, vice provost for Enrollment Services. “For example, I was reminded that others may hear your words differently than you mean them.”

One moment that stood out in Kohn’s mind occurred at the event’s luncheon, when a woman shared that colleagues using the word “guys” to refer to men and women was offensive to her.

“The word ‘guys’ has always been inclusive to me, kind of like ‘y’all,’” Kohn said. “But this woman felt like when people said, ‘Do you guys want to go to lunch,’ it didn’t include her. This was one of those aha moments I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t attend this event.”

The one area that Kohn wished there had been more discussion about was the status divides on campus among faculty, staff, and students.

“There can be very real tension among these groups, and I think it’s just as important for us to discuss these issues as it is to discuss topics such as race and sexual orientation,” he added.

During the luncheon, Alexander also provided a progress report on OHR’s diversity efforts.

“You raised questions, and we’re answering them,” she said.

Some of this year’s highlights include offering:

  • Brown bag lunches focused on topics such as bullying and incivility.
  • Training sessions such as the Fierce Conversations program.
  • Reading circles, such as the recent event for female faculty and staff members to discuss Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Alexander and Cofield also announced the creation of the following employee resource groups (ERGs): African Heritage; Hispanic/Latino; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Ally; Introvert; Veterans; and Women. Stay tuned to future issues for more information about the ERGs.

Related Media

Click on image(s) to view larger version(s)

  • 2013 Diversity Roundtable: Paul Kohn

For More Information Contact

Amelia Pavlik
Institute Communications
404-385-4142