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Diversity Is About Change and Leadership
Jose Soto
Vice-President for Affirmative Action/Diversity, Southeast Community College System
Lincoln, Nebraska

Social forecasters predict that the future -- the year 2000 and beyond -- will usher in an era of ethnic, racial, and cultural "minorities" as the statistical majority in the United States. As a result of this inevitable demographic phenomenon, "diversity" and "cultural competence" will continue as the by-words and challenges facing our society and social institutions into the new millenium.

What is needed to prepare our institutions and us to work within this environment of change? My answer focuses on leadership and a personal commitment to moving the diversity agenda forward.

The challenge for societal institutions will be immense

Diversity will continue to place increasing demands on and present formidable challenges for businesses, educational institutions, health care systems, the criminal justice system, and other governmental entities, and the individuals who work within these systems. The demands and challenges center on CHANGE. The reality is that the status quo is no longer an option.

In this environment of societal change and transition it is critical that individuals develop and maintain

  • New knowledge
  • New skills
  • New abilities
  • New attitudes, and
  • New ways of thinking, being, and doing
What new expectations will diversity require of professionals? Diversity will demand that we re-think and revise our list of the competencies needed to work effectively at a professional level within an environment of increasing racial, ethnic and cultural diversity.

Currently, and more so in the future, professionals must be culturally competentŠ that is, they must possess a wide repertoire of skills and a broad cultural knowledge base to interpret and understand the world views, communication styles, and unique ways of "thinking, being and doing" of others. Further, professionals will be required to use this new knowledge, skills, and abilities to accurately assess needs and select the best strategies and techniques to manage the dynamics of difference within their changing organizations.

Cultural Competence: A Measure of Our Understanding of and Readiness to Manage Diversity As we move toward a more culturally diverse society and workforce, we must begin to assess the cultural strengths of our institutions and organizations, and the people who manage those entities. There are literally hundreds of questions we should be asking ourselves, on an ongoing basis.

Our individual and collective answers to these questions will give us insights as to our own "cultural baggage" and will also serve as an indication of how prepared we are to:

  1. Co-exist in a world increasingly marked by diversity,
  2. Work effectively across cultures, and
  3. Serve as social-change agents.
Questions for leaders at all levels within your institution

A recent issue of the journal "Black Issues in Higher Education," (Vol. 15, No. 20, 11/26/98), emphasized the importance of leadership in establishing and sustaining a commitment to diversity. The following questions, adapted from the journal's "Checklist for Assessing Your President's Diversity Commitment," can help you assess your level of leadership and personal commitment to positioning your institution to accommodate the emerging diversity.

  • Have you established clear expectations and goals in the areas of diversity and affirmative action for your area of responsibility?
  • Do you actively and enthusiastically participate in diversity programs and initiatives on a frequent and on-going basis?
  • Do you take every opportunity to convey the message to employees and the public that "diversity is important and a priority" within youčre your work unit and organization?
  • Have you designated/targeted funds within all budget centers under your control to promote and support diversity initiatives?
  • Have you designated a high-level professional administrative position to provide administrative leadership for diversity within your organization?
  • Do you actively support and encourage people of color within your organization to plan, develop, and implement diversity- related initiatives?
  • Do you hold all employees accountable for achievements and failures in meeting expectations and goals in the area of diversity and affirmative action?
  • Do you recognize and reward those employees who achieve results in the area of diversity?
  • Do your hiring practices or appointments to senior-level positions within the organization demonstrate a commitment to diversity?
  • Are you willing to take reasonable "risks" in hiring, making appointments and promotions in order to advance the diversity goals of the organization?
  • Have you advocated for and implemented specific diversity policies and procedures beyond those externally imposed or mandated by the law or government regulations?
  • Have you publicly taken a strong position in favor of affirmative action and diversity?
  • Do you actively solicit input and support for diversity-related initiatives from "higher ups" (e.g., your supervisor, the board of directors/trustees) in your organization?
  • Do you frequently meet with community leaders and constituent groups to solicit their input and support for your efforts in developing the organization?
  • Do you participate in activities within the minority communities to the extent that your presence is known and welcome within those communities?
  • Do you "walk the talk" of diversity, multiculturalism, and affirmative action, or are your efforts more symbolic, token, and geared toward public relations?
Your level of commitment and leadership is key

Accommodation and adaptation within organizations to the expected changes in the diversity equation will be successful to the extent institutional decision-makers assume personal and professional responsibility for facilitating change and exerting leadership in their spheres of authority and influence. Your answers to the questions posed above will assist you in assessing your personal commitment to advancing the diversity agenda, and your willingness to provide the leadership necessary to successfully accommodate and be a part of the emerging diversity.

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