What 4-H Taught Me About Diversity

what-4h-taught-me-about-diversity_blog_staff-management-SMXMy passion for diversity started when I was six years old. My parents had gotten divorced and my grandparents moved in with us. One of the ways my sisters and I kept busy was being part of the local 4-H club. We lived in the suburbs of Chicago in a white middle-class neighborhood. I loved being part of the 4-H club; the meetings were fun and the goodies delicious. The club hosted two major annual events. One was a competition in the big city – Chicago.  The other was a two-week camp in rural Kankakee, IL.  I had no idea the impact those two events would have in my life.

While Chicago may have had the reputation of being a melting pot of cultures, the surrounding suburbs were not. The day my 4-H club went to sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in downtown Chicago was exciting. One thing immediately caught my eye – there were a lot of people who looked different than me; many more than in our little town. The day went off without a hitch, all the groups did great. About a month later, the club set off for our two weeks at camp. We had our sleeping bags, swimsuits, and lots of t-shirts and shorts. It was about a two-hour drive.

When we arrived at camp my small group was divided up by age and we were assigned to our cabins. When I got to my cabin there were many unfamiliar faces – from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In my young impressionable eyes, I only saw them as other girls my age. Throughout the next two weeks, I did arts and crafts, swam, bathed, ate and sang with my new cabin friends. We all had a good time and to me there were no differences. Even though our faces were different and we didn’t all talk alike, we just heard one another’s words – without prejudice.

Then I grew up – in the middle of the 60’s. My father, while a good man, was a product of his environment and vocal about his prejudices. I didn’t understand his opinions and they didn’t make any sense because of the wonderful memories I had from those two weeks at 4-H camp when I was six years old. Based on that experience I knew my dad was wrong – unfortunately he wasn’t alone. I watched prejudices play out in violent protests to desegregation busing on the nightly news – evidence that communities across the country were divided due to their differences. Based upon what? Words?

As a freshman, my high school in Tinley Park, IL was desegregated with forced busing. While Vice President Gerald Ford visited my school to commend the student body for the manner in which we meshed together, we still had police monitoring the busing in and out each day.

These youthful experiences were formative and impacted my future studies and ultimately my career. In College, I pursued a minor in Minority Studies and Institutional Racism.  During my studies in Institutional Racism, the most important lesson I learned was that one change, one person at a time, can begin to make a difference.  Simply by not judging or having preconceived opinions based upon the color of someone’s skin or their background you can make a difference. I learned that words can not only divide but can also bring communities together, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated.

Once I graduated from college, I was able to delve into another opportunity to understand cultural differences. I moved to Puerto Rico and experienced what it felt like to be different – to be the minority. One impactful moment came when I was sitting on a bench waiting for a public bus. A man spat at me and said “Go home gringo.” I didn’t know the man; I hadn’t spoken to him, I was just different from him.

On the other hand, I had many positive experiences.  For instance, a few years later I got a flat tire on the highway.  Being in my twenties, an independent woman – I pulled over, popped the trunk to get my spare tire when I felt a tap on my shoulder.  It was a very well dressed man who offered to fix my flat.  He didn’t have to stop, it was blazing hot and he was on his way to work, but he did.  He didn’t see our differences;  he just saw another person in need of assistance and helped.

For the past 15 years, I have worked for Staff Management | SMX, an organization that embraces diversity as exhibited throughout our organization. Now, as a company leader, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to spearhead our corporate initiative to further champion diversity and an inclusive culture and to provide equal access to opportunities and information for all of our employees. I am thrilled to be a part of our Diversity Program Inclusion Council (DPIC) which is working hard to embrace the diversity of our workforce with participation from all levels and will share the fruits of our labor periodically in my blog posts.

In the meantime…What are you doing to foster an inclusive culture at your company?

I recently read this article from SHRM – What CEOs Think About Diversity. It is a great article about why diversity is important to other American business leaders and what helped them to develop that passion.