Circles of Belonging
The highlight came at the end of our Professional Development Day when I had the pleasure of participating in the Circles of Belonging workshop brought to us by colleagues from Valencia Community College. It was a condensed version of the diversity training initiative offered to their employees. Dr. Martha Williams, Dr. Stanley Stone, Vicki Nelson, and Joe Nunes deserve our appreciation for bringing to us this well considered approach to a sometimes sensitive and difficult topic. Don’t get me wrong, keynote speaker, Patrick Grady stirred us and choked us with his high energy humor and wisdom. He was fantastic! The other sessions offered to employees throughout the day provided for many options and many interests. Thanks to all the presenters who gave of their time and talent to help us grow professionally. I give the organizers of our first Professional Development Day an A+ for their efforts.
Something about Circles of Belonging captured my imagination. I awoke this morning with an urge to write down some of my thoughts following the experience. Some deeper motivation tells me to share these thoughts. Fair warning though, I’m writing from the perspective of a bald-headed-sixty-six-year-old-non-hispanic-white-male-Episcopalian-Anglo-American who grew-up in the Midwest eating lots of beef, corn, and potatoes in a nuclear family with two sisters, a beagle, and several rather short-lived parakeets.
Now that you know everything about me that is important . . . ahem!
In nature, the most successful or enduring habitats have the greatest diversity of life. In sports, the best teams have players with different talents. In organizations, the most effective problem solving is accomplished by groups comprised of talented individuals with different special abilities, perspectives, and competencies. If you are trapped on a desert island for the rest of your life and you could choose seven books, would you want seven copies of the same book? All of this is to say that diversity should be highly valued–diversity of talent, diversity of knowledge, diversity of skill, diversity of perspective, diversity of strength, diversity of personality, and diversity of experiences. A rich fabric contains many different threads–some for beauty, some for strength, some for resilience and durability.
Why in our society, do we sometimes struggle mightily to embrace and value our differences–some of our differences? Why is skin color, and a few other truly unimportant differences, perceived by some as unearned disadvantages? Even baldness is perceived by some people as an imperfection to be “cured” when it is not even a disease. Would we ever consider “curing” brown eyes?
There are many ironies in this area of discourse. For example, each of us is unique! Even identical twins are unique although they usually share the same genotype–at least 99.99999999 percent identical, but they do not share the same life experiences, even if they are together all of the time. While we are each unique, we are all equal humans! None of us is more human than another of us. There are no 0.75 or 1.5 humans. If you are a human, you are one human. Don’t argue with me about Siamese twins–we can tell if two are joined together or if one has some additional parts.
Frankly, we have a very bad habit of misusing labels and stereotypes to simplify our communications–to sum up very complicated ideas or characteristics with a single word or two. The practice is endemic to our culture, actually to our species. It is the way we use language. You describe someone as “smart” or “dumb” and you’ve summed up a life in one word. You call someone “white” or “black” or “disadvantaged” or “non-Hispanic” or “lazy” or “smart” or “autistic” and you’ve just described a unique human being with one word. Furthermore, you’ve grouped that unique human being with a bunch of others as if they were all the same. And to make matters worse, the meaning or image that you have of that word or words may be entirely different than the understanding of the person who hears you utter the word. We have a long way to go in learning how to use our language ability.
Temple Grandin, Ph.D., has authored about ten books. Her advanced degree is in animal science and she studied psychology as an undergraduate. I first heard her interviewed some years ago on NPR Science Friday and then I read her book Animals in Translation. You can read about her in today’s Wall Street Journal (Saturday, February 20, 2010). You can also learn about her by watching a wonderful and critically acclaimed movie, Temple Grandin, on HBO this month, and I highly recommend it. Dr. Grandin describes herself as a “high-functioning” autistic. She also tells us that many other unique individuals, some very successful, others not so successful, are autistic. She mentions Albert Einstein as an example. Yet, we commonly label people with autism spectrum “disorders” as “mentally disadvantaged.” In many cases, they have been institutionalized and treated to manage their difference from others of us who do not get labeled with those words. Ironically, when Dr. Grandin was asked if she wished there had been a “cure” for her autism so that she could live a “more normal” life. She said no! Her uniqueness was her advantage. It gave her a different perspective that allowed her to be a successful inventor, author, and college professor. Without her autism, she would have been a different person, and most significantly, she liked the person she was. How many great musicians are blind? How many great artists cannot hear? What an inspiration was Helen Keller! Likewise, Temple Grandin teaches us an inspirational truth. We’re each unique human beings and what we perceive of our lives is up to us!
So, why would the relative darkness or shade of one’s skin be an important difference in assigning us an earned advantage or disadvantage? Why would our language, our ethnic heritage, our religion, or even our private and personal sexual proclivities determine our advantage or disadvantage in society? Old ideas, like big ships take, time to turn. Hanging on to prejudicial notions and crazy illogical stereotypes will certainly cause us as a society to sink to the depths of the most dysfunctional cultural ocean. We’re each unique human beings, with opportunities beyond our most ambitious aspirations. Dare to dream anyway, and treat your fellow travelers with the all respect and compassion each one deserves, while respecting the almost infinite differences that truly define our humanity.