Facets of Diversity
by George Pitagorsky
Following a talk on diversity by Larry Yang of the East Bay Insight Meditation Center and team building activities in organizations I can see the power and importance of diversity.
Diversity offers a great opportunity for breakthrough into optimal performance on a personal, family, team and organizational level.
Diversity comes in many dimensions. There are race, color, religion, culture, sexual orientation, politics, thinking style, communication style, socio-economic class, intelligence, age, and physical condition. Diversity is a fact of life; we are as different from one another as are snowflakes. Diversity in our lives is fueled by globalization, social and other communication media, and progress in diversity acceptance and sensitivity as well as civil rights legislation. All of these are subject to change based on resistance from forces that may combine racism, personal, cultural and national superiority myths, paternalistic attitudes, homophobia, etc.
On the surface the approach to diversity in centers in the Mindfulness Meditation Community seems fundamentally different from the approach to diversity in communities, business organizations, teams and families, though when we look further into the issue it becomes clear (at least to me) that the differences are in degree rather than fundamental principles.
In the Mindfulness Meditation centers the focus is to give people a sense of safety in affinity groups with others who are like them. In organizations and communities (including the mindfulness communities as well as businesses and government agencies), families and teams the focus is working together by blending the strengths of each member and eliminating the negative behaviors and beliefs that get in the way of achieving the group's goals while respecting the needs of the individual.
The two dimensions of separating and coming together are part of the same whole. On the whole, I see the following principles:
- Safety in affinity groups
- Acceptance - Education, motivation, practice and diversity awareness
- Building the broader community
- Self-actualization and self-transcendence.
As people we seem to need a place where we can "be ourselves" in a group of people who share experience and style.
Affinity groups serve this need. In affinity groups the uncomfortable sense of being different and/or less than is minimized. We can relax, communicate more easily and openly, and focus on our meditation practice or work. It is a place for refueling. It is a place where we can lower our guard and open. In our affinity group we are not confronted by diversity and our responses to it in the same way as we are in mixed groups.
The affinity group is a place where we both lose the power of diversity as well as the stress it brings. The power of diversity on an individual level is the ability to see oneself more clearly through a self-assessment of our differences and our reactions to those differences. From an organizational or team perspective, the power of diversity is in the ability to blend divergent viewpoints and strengths to become more creative in decision making and more effective in performance.
Alongside affinity groups, for the sake of personal growth and community health, there is the need for acceptance. Applying learning, insight and wisdom to cultivate a sense of unity; recognizing that while we are as different as snowflakes, we are alike. When we accept diversity we have the ability to transcend the beliefs and behaviors that keep us from becoming a part of the broader community, whether it is a village, region, organization or family while enabling those who are different from us to enhance ourselves and our shared community.
We are responsible for cultivating our own cultural intelligence and diversity awareness. We learn to identify our own tendencies, fears, strengths and weaknesses and the tendencies, fears, strengths and weaknesses of others. We can work with behavioral models to get a sense of the different ways people think, communicate and behave. We seek to understand.
In the absolute sense we might transcend our need for affinity groups and feel at home in any group. In the relative world we live in, many still need a home base to retreat to. Perhaps, as diversity in families, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces becomes increasingly common and as people become more aware of diversity and their reactions to it, this need will disappear.
When we share a community and when that community has goals and values we aspire to, we have the responsibility to mange diversity to enable a unified effort.
In a work team there is the acknowledgement that the member who forces everyone to be analytically correct, sometimes with great resistance from others who are less precise and less patient, may be adding great value. There is also the acknowledgement that habitually behaving in one's "natural" way may be detrimental to the group.
In a community there is a variety of styles, values and other traits that transcend the individuals and their affinity groups. The NY Insight Meditation Center is a good example. The People of Color affinity group has stimulated a greater sense of overall community and its members, some of whom would not have been drawn to the community if there was no affinity group, have taken vital roles in its health and growth.
Through acceptance the group becomes better able to avoid and manage unavoidable conflicts and make use of diverse ideas and perspectives to obtain optimal solutions.
Self-Actualization and Transcendence
Using Maslow's terms for the highest motivators, we can use diversity as a vehicle to achieve self-actualization and transcendence. We do that by confronting the aspects of ourselves that keep us from opening to the broader community while judiciously using our affinity groups as a place of safety and renewal. In the absolute sense we seek to understand our own condition and the condition we share with others.
Going forward we can make the intention to cultivate sufficient understanding of ourselves and others and do the work of coming together in a way that honors the differences and seeks the ideal of the color of a man's skin (or his culture, religion, thinking style, etc.) making no more difference than the color of his eyes. Until that ideal is achieved, there is a need to struggle for the right balance between unity and separateness.
© 2011 Pitagorsky Consulting