Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press
“As we gather together at this exploration & celebration of our cultural diversity, let us ask for the blessing of our Creator who has placed us all on this precious planet. Let us give thanks for our shared hope for a future where we can harmonize, not homogenize, the intersection of race, ethnicity, religion, generation, and genders represented in this room.” That’s how I began my invocation prayer for Chattanooga’s Chamber of Commerce Diversify Summit. The luncheon at the Convention Center was packed with every generation, from grey-haired sages to newborn infants with their moms. Attendees represented corporations, small businesses, universities and colleges, nonprofits, networking groups, media, and municipal agencies.
Why were there so many diverse folks in the room? They know that a diverse workforce and community is a vital element of our future success. That’s why they all came together to be inspired by the luncheon speaker, Deborah Elam, GE’s first black female corporate officer. And it’s also why so many of them also attended the summit sessions with professionals sharing their expertise in how to transform intent into action. As I shared in my Diversify invocation, “May we learn and grow together today and become enriched by the diverse voices around us. We pray that our inclusiveness and openness will reflect the inspiration of our faiths to make a difference in our communities and in our workplaces.”
One of my all-time favorite diversity professionals is Ron Harris, VP of Diversity & Inclusion at BlueCross BlueShield of TN. There was standing room only in his session on unconscious bias. Demonstrating that we all have biases that we’re not fully aware of, he asked how many of us thought he could slam dunk a basketball. Much laughter followed because, as anyone who knows Ron is aware, he’s definitely “vertically challenged”. As the list of reasons for our skepticism grew, so did our awareness of how our thinking led to our beliefs and, as Ron pointed out, to our biases.
Why should we care about our beliefs about others who are not like us? They are what determine who we recruit and promote. Our beliefs shape our interaction on teams, onsite and online. They influence much of our marketing to different cultural communities. They’re the basis for our engagement with diverse students and their families. Our beliefs determine the level of our awareness and sensitivity to our city’s diversity. And the more those beliefs lead to both curiosity and respect, the more cultural competence we’re willing to work towards. That competence means we can maximize the attraction of new companies into the region, the ability of our educators to reach a diverse student body, and the role of service agencies, non-profit and municipal, in creating Chattanooga as a model for the city of the future.
Some may say, “Get somebody else to do this diversity thing and leave me alone. It’s too hard and these people are too different.” To them I say, as I said in my invocation, “While we may pray in different languages, at different times, and in different houses of worship, we all share a dedication to good works and respect for the Almighty’s creation. May that dedication be reflected here in our discussions of the challenges and opportunities involved in creating a diverse workplace. We know that there are difficult issues and complex problems to solve and we ask for divine guidance. May the Source of all Being bless us with the wisdom to be productive with what we learn today and give us the strength to persevere in applying that wisdom with grace and humanity.”