Fifty years ago on Aug. 28, the day of the March on Washington, was also the day that I began my work in the field of intercultural relations. Like the March on Washington, my work that day was not focused on bringing together cultures from around the world but was based on promoting understanding and respect based on race and religion. My session was for a group of high school leaders from around New Jersey and we were discussing attitude formation, prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination and inequality. In the 1960s, we called it human relations — a simple and inclusive concept.
With an awareness of the issues of inequality and disparity based on aspects beyond race and religion — such as gender, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, class, etc. — we, the children of the civil rights movement were primarily focused on the most apparent and proximate issues of the day. We knew it was the start of something big, and anything seemed possible. Real social change was on the horizon and indeed, the civil rights movement of the 1960s spawned social change far beyond race or religion.
Between the ’70s and the ’90s, the field became known as diversity and inclusion, with a focus primarily on compliance and equal representation in the workplace and community. In the ’70s and ’80s a separate field, intercultural relations, was born, led by many of the people who were involved the in the civil rights movement of the ’60s. This new field also focused on promoting understanding and respect, but with a global perspective.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the two fields began to merge, as the diversity and inclusion field evolved and discovered the importance of cultural competence as a strategic aspect in promoting inclusiveness and diversity in today’s organizations. Additionally, the globalization of organizations has led to the increased awareness of the value of diversity on a global basis and the challenges associated with taking diversity global.
Today, much of my work is in diversity training, but now mostly in the area of cultural competence – one significant aspect of diversity.
The diversity and inclusion field continues to deal with attitude formation, prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination and inequality – whether it’s prevention of unnecessary frisking by the police, of being followed while walking through a departments store, of being eyed suspiciously as you enter a new neighborhood or of being misunderstood or undervalued when joining a multicultural team, it’s still human relations. The focus is still on learning about others and how to build respect and understanding.