The Mix Between Personal and Professional

The SHRM diversity conference is the perfect combination of therapy and education. Held earlier this week in San Francisco, it’s kind of like my yearly perspective adjuster. I look forward to the show because it never fails to illustrate brighter than a spotlight just how necessary diversity work is in business and in life.

As a black woman, or double minority, it’s easy to become consumed by my own problems or concerns specific to my immediate sphere of knowledge. But then I attend sessions and watch video clips of Mexican-Americans who are also mistreated because of the way they look, but in a completely different way.

You experience role play exercises where black men propagate microinequities against white women, where white men almost innocently and obviously unintentionally disrespect co-workers with disabilities, and it becomes clear: diversity and inclusion is not an issue for some; it’s a far-reaching concern for us all.

It helps to learn these lessons from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. For instance, there was keynote speaker Steve Pemberton, chief diversity officer at Walgreens, a light skinned, blue eyed black man who grew up rough in Boston. Shuttled from foster home to foster home and asked so often, “what are you?” that he began to ask himself the same question, we learned not only a little of how this black man overcame adversity, but how he leveraged his personal passion into success in a like-minded organization.

The stories are plentiful and a great method with which to impart lessons and data. But the best part is, there are few avowals of perfection at this conference. Everyone is ready and willing to admit they are still learning, that their organizations make mistakes, but that they are committed to creating inclusive, high-performance workplaces.

There is never the woe is me, whine-whine-complain scenario that we have learned contributes to diversity fatigue. These diversity executives are often quite matter of fact, even humorous about the slights and setbacks they have suffered on the path to today.

John Quinones, creator and host of the TV show “What Would You Do?” brought a tear to my eye as he told stories about immigrant abuse and showed clips from his show where Mexican-Americans were targeted and abused without provocation. But while that tear began as sorrow, it became laughter as I watched average Americans jump in to defend these people against mistreatment. It’s the perfect mix of personal and professional; there’s just enough of the former to ratchet up the impact of the latter.

Triumph over adversity could have been this year’s unofficial conference theme. It seemed to seep into every session I attended as leaders filtered in these almost matter of fact face slappers from their own lives with advice on how to execute and sell diversity management in an organizational or academic setting.

We all, not just those who work in diversity, can benefit from learning about other people’s experiences. I think it increases empathy, makes work easier and increases the chances that not only will we perform better, but that we will assist someone else in doing the same.