Recognizing and Embracing Diversity

9/7/2012 2:25:00 PM

First-year residential MBA students participate in diversity training at Johnson

If someone uses racial stereotypes to attack a certain group of people, should bystanders speak up? Or if a Japanese employee working in a U.S. company feels excluded from informal networking events because of her accent and cultural background, should she try to assimilate or return to Japan?

Johnson’s Class of ’14 residential MBA students debated such questions during the Diversity Interactive Theater, a diversity training session sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) as part of their orientation this August. The session encouraged first-year, full-time MBA students to challenge their assumptions on diversity and inclusion. Douglas M. Stayman, associate dean for MBA programs, who opened the session, stressed the importance of diversity: Not only does diversity foster creativity; awareness of diverse perceptions and points of view is crucial to avoiding cultural slights and blunders.  “An organization won’t be successful if it doesn’t embrace the diversity of different people,” Stayman said. 

ODI Director Nsombi B. Ricketts said ODI’s goal is to “increase diversity and promote inclusiveness at Johnson.” Inclusion is what makes diversity work, and “it takes each of us to make this community value every member.” In a quick exercise, Ricketts prompted the audience to consider diversity in a broader sense, including age, sexual orientation, military status, and other groupings. “You take dimensions of diversity as gender and race, but there are a lot of other dimensions you need to think about,” she said, triggering laughter when she asked for “single and available people” to identify themselves. 

During the rest of the session, the CSW Associates team members engaged Johnson students and faculty members in open discussions, with CSW Managing Director Connie Wong facilitating the debates. Wong began by dividing the audience into small groups that were diverse in a variety of ways. This diversity helped the group members to generate myriad perspectives and ideas during the ensuing discussions. After CSW team members role-played a scene in which students complained about a colleague in class, Wong asked: “If you were a bystander in this class, would you see yourself as having any accountability?” One student responded, “A lot of what I say will be discounted because [I am the same race as the colleague in question]. If it [came from] someone of another race, it would be higher esteemed.” Wong concluded, “[We] hold mutual accountability for each other. Sometimes you [may be] in an influential position to support someone else who’s completely different than you.”

In another scene, a CSW team member role-played the Japanese woman working in a U.S. company who felt excluded. Her options were to return to Japan or to stay and adopt Western behaviors. She asked the audience for advice. One student immediately responded, “Go back to Japan.” He explained that the woman would have a greater advantage dealing with Japanese clients. Wong called his reasoning “cultural alignment theory” — a belief that people should interact with others who share similar cultural backgrounds. She said if we all followed that theory, then everyone in the auditorium should simply return to his or her own country. “This whole cultural alignment thing, that certain groups of people are only good at certain things, squanders intellectual capital,” said Wong.

Overall, interaction among the students, CSW team members, and facilitator was genuine and inspiring, and Wong deftly directed questions to audience members with different backgrounds to elicit responses from multiple perspectives.

At the end of the interactive diversity and inclusion session, Wong left the audience with several diversity cases drawn from real life to think about, saying:  “I hope [this session will serve] as a spring board to discuss and share how you will leverage the diversity in this year’s class.”

By Yuezhou Huo '15, an intern in Marketing and Communications at Johnson.