TEDxIndianapolis Talk: Why Diversity is Upside Down

by Andrés T. Tapia –

Why is diversity upside-down and how do we with what that means for our lives and our companies? Check out my recent TEDx Talk in Indianapolis, IN. I explore just how much our world’s hyper-diversity has affected practically every aspect of our lives – in our personal relationships, in our communities, and in our companies.



The Melting Pot’s Contradictory Legacy

by Andrés T. Tapia – Newspaper And Tablet PC

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Diversity and inclusion among biggest headlines right now:

  • Supreme Court Rules Against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)
  • Supreme Court Ruling Reaffirms the Striking Down of California’s Proposition 8
  • Supreme Court Significantly Weakens the Voting Rights Act
  • Supreme Court Punts on Affirmative Action in University of Texas Case
  • George Zimmerman Not Guilty in Trayvon Martin Shooting; Verdict Sparks Cries of Injustice

Triggered by these headlines, as people take to the streets to extol progress on LGBT issues and rail against injustice on racial ones, and as the pundits release their torrent of words that range from the inspired to the insipid, what are diversity and inclusion (D&I) leaders’ unique contributions to what is unfolding? I would love to know what you see as the compelling answer to this question. Write to me here.

To whatever it is you have to offer and what many others have already brought up insightfully in terms of equality, profiling, justice, and opportunity, I’d like to offer this: crosscultural dexterity (or crosscultural competence). The absence or mastery of it makes a pivotal difference in how these issues are being decided and interpreted not only in the courts, but also as related issues show up in corporations.

Before elaborating, I need to get a little technical, but I assure you the pay off will be worth it. Here’s a sound bite primer on one way in which crosscultural dexterity is measured. Based on the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), where the model was developed by Milton Bennett and measured by Mitch Hammer, people can fall anywhere along a spectrum when it comes to cultural differences:

  • Denial that any differences exist
  • Polarization around differences where they are viewed as right or wrong, better or worse, superior or inferior
  • Minimization where the focus is more on what we have in common and where the differences are not seen as making a difference
  • Acceptance that despite our many similarities we still have some fundamental differences
  • Adaptation, which is where we have the skill to adapt to others’ differences and in a reciprocal way are able to help them adapt to ours

Where does all this fit in having a deeper understanding of the various actions on the part of the Supreme Court and the jury in the Zimmerman trial? It’s the consistent thread of a minimization worldview in full manifestation.

In some of the legal decisions, minimization is leading to good, healthy, constructive outcomes, yet in some other situations it’s leading to very unjust outcomes. Understanding why this is requires the kind of cultural dexterity that is in short supply in society in general.

Let’s explore this further.

Where Minimization Heals

The American ethos of the Melting Pot comes from the place of minimization. In many, many ways it has yielded powerful outcomes including one of the most pluralistic societies in the world. And in some of the recent Supreme Court decisions on DOMA and Prop 8, this minimization worldview has yielded good and just results.

Consider how we are in the midst of an inflection point where many of those who might be unsupportive of gay rights are yielding to a countervailing force that is the bedrock American concept of equality embedded in the U.S. Constitution. This is why the Supreme Court justices, out of their minimization worldview that difference should not make a difference, declared that there’s no basis to say that certain groups of people have more or less rights just because of the person they choose to love. In the end, their decision minimized difference and said that it should not make a difference.

This is an example of the way minimization can play out in a very effective way. In fact, minimization played a positive role in launching the Civil Rights Era as a way of countering the societal polarization going on. At the time, people were highlighting differences in destructive ways to discriminate against and segregate people due to their color or gender. Instead, this minimization worldview helped construct legislation and the attitude that difference should not make a difference when it came to access to services, education, jobs, housing, etc. That’s powerful. That’s minimization in a good way.

Where Minimization Can Destroy

Where can minimization be destructive and even justify discriminatory activity? When it’s used to minimize and deny that differences can make a difference where they really do. As discussed, minimization seeks to be colorblind (“When I see you I don’t see the color of your skin”) and gender blind. And how we wish this were true in terms of equal outcomes, but it’s a self-perception fallacy that we can truly not notice race, gender, and by the way, age—the three things psychologists tell us are the first three things we take into account when we meet someone.

In the public arena, the reality is that society is far from achieving this. It is through unconscious and conscious biases that we end up with unequal outcomes. I recently co-wrote a paper with Kathy Phillips, a professor at Columbia University Business School, where we show conclusively that in so many arenas of society—health care, income, racial profiling, arrests and incarceration, career advancement—there are deep and systemic disparities. For all our desire for a minimization worldview to be true, it’s not. Because if it were true, difference would not make a difference and therefore there would be no disparities.

Which takes us to the recent rulings on race. The Supreme Court has used a minimization worldview to justify weakening the Voters Rights Act that was put in place because Blacks were being disproportionately prejudiced against in terms of their ability to exercise their right to vote. Therefore nine states required special supervision in order to ensure any voter registration law changes did not lead to vote suppression. The Supreme Court justified weakening these provisions rooted in the minimization worldview that, Hey, it’s the 21st century. We have a Black president. That was back then, this is now. We are colorblind. [1]

This is the same line of argument being used to continue weakening affirmative action. Even though the Supreme Court punted on the University of Texas case and they put it back to the lower courts, there were clear indications on the part of those who don’t agree with affirmative action that its time is over.

The latest, most egregious, outrageous, and hurtful evidence of the minimization worldview playing a destructive and unhelpful role is in the recent Zimmerman verdict regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Here is an African-American teen walking from his house to the store to get some Skittles and an iced tea and walking back, which should have been the safest set of circumstances that one could be in. He’s trailed by a stranger in a car with a gun. There’s a confrontation. The boy ends up dead and the shooter ends up being let go and declared not guilty.

Did race play a role? Even though the defense said no, and the judge said no, and even the boy’s family and the prosecution said no, minimization was at play big time. Read this New York Times article, “Zimmerman Prosecutors Duck the Race Issue,”  through the minimization worldview and you will see how it unfolds.

The truth is that had he not been Black he would not have been followed, triggered by racial profiling. That’s why he was confronted. Whatever altercation took place, it was the logical outcome of an environment where difference did make a difference in why Trayvon was being followed. In this case it was a racial difference, and it ended up tragically. But the law, and in this case all the key players including the prosecution, assumed minimization.

The minimization worldview is so pervasive and entrenched that even the prosecution did not want to demonstrate greater crosscultural dexterity by helping the jury move toward acceptance and adaptation and in that realize that there are still too many times where difference does make a difference.

And hence the outrageous verdict, because clearly race played a role—and the firestorm of public reaction that is pivoting around race proves this. Sure, there’s a law at play in terms of the burden of beyond reasonable doubt and the hugely problematic Stand Your Ground laws and in a court of law a jury must operate within the constraints of the law.

It’s understandable why the defense would want to take race out of the equation, and they were doing their job. But for the prosecution to strategically also say “this was never about race” stripped it of one its most potent prosecutorial lines that could have confronted the jury’s minimization worldview and challenged them to move toward acceptance and even adaptation in seeing how difference—in this case race—was at the heart of what happened and why. Of course, their verdict may have ended up the same but we will never know what would have happened if the jury had not been left off the hook of answering the question: why was a stranger with a gun following a young Black teen walking home?

Does race make a difference? Yes.

Does gender or sexual orientation make a difference? Of course.

In a society that wants to hold on to its minimization worldview we, as diversity practitioners, need to be skilled at surfacing these differences in a way that is post Civil Rights Era, but not post racial. This is not easy, as evidenced not only just through our own experiences, but also in watching the first Black president of the United States navigate the issue exceptionally carefully. While picking his spots of when he will weigh in (often to the chagrin of people of color wanting him to speak quickly and forcefully every time), when he has spoken he has indeed demonstrated a facile use of cultural dexterity that serves as a template for how we can do the same. (View President Obama’s comments on the George Zimmerman verdict.)

As D&I practitioners we must be skilled in a way that the prosecution in the Trayvon Martin case was not skilled, in a way that the Supreme Court is not skilled, in a way that Congress is not skilled, and neither is the media. And neither are most executive leaders in our corporations.

We must be skilled at constructively surfacing differences and discerning when difference doesn’t make a difference and when it does. If we don’t know how to do that and we don’t teach our corporations and our society to do that, organizations, institutions, and courts are going to continue to make ill-informed decisions that lead to unfairness and injustice to those who continue to be disenfranchised or discriminated against in one way or another.

Conversely, as we step into the breech not just as advocates and seekers of justice, but as skilled facilitators for the necessary conversations and understanding that need to happen, then our crosscultural dexterity can be one of the most helpful things we can offer in this paradigm-shifting time.

How to ensure this headline?: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! D&I leaders lead the way to understanding, healing, and opportunity.

Diversity and the Rise of America’s Second-Tier Cities

by Andrés T. Tapia –


The Cincinnati skyline at twilight

In my work as president of Diversity Best Practices, I travel around the country a lot—meeting with members, consulting, giving speeches. While my engagements often take me to the usual big cities—New York City; Boston; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco—increasingly my work is pulling me to second-tier towns. Like most people, I had preconceived ideas about our country’s smaller cities—slower paced, homogeneous, lacking in resources and amenities. To my surprise, there is a fervent movement around diversity and inclusion in these secondary cities that I believe is evolving into a national trend.

From Pittsburgh to Columbus to Omaha to Grand Rapids to Milwaukee to Indianapolis to Minneapolis, cities that people have typically assumed lack diversity are more diverse than people think. In fact, the percentage of racial minorities in Pittsburgh; Columbus, Ohio; and Milwaukee surpasses that of New York City. And Grand Rapids and Milwaukee come close to rivaling the Big Apple in terms of the percentage of Latinos.

What’s more, because many of these cities are experiencing economic growth the imperative of diversity is growing right along with their rising economic indicators. Omaha has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, Columbus one of the fastest economic growth rates, and Pittsburgh is the poster child of a city making the pivot from an industrial economy based on steel to the new economy of finance, healthcare, and technology.

In their growing dynamism, companies in these second tier cities are awakening to a realization that not only do they need to leverage the diverse talent pool already in the city; they need to bring in more talent from outside to keep their economic growth momentum. This means attracting more diversity—racial/ethnic, immigrant, LGBT—to cities that on first blush may not be seem to be magnets for big-city types from groups that historically may not have felt welcome.

It’s this legacy perception that they lack the diversity and amenities found in major metropolitan areas that poses a fundamental challenge to these second-tier cities. If they don’t overcome it, their economic growth may stall out due to lack of talent.

So companies in these markets are working together to get their diversity story out. I have been with passionate diversity leaders in Milwaukee, Columbus, Omaha, and Cincinnati, where they have banded together through city-wide diversity councils where big and medium-sized companies (even competing organizations) are addressing their common diversity challenges. They’re also partnering with their local Chambers of Commerce and city development organizations to make their cities more attractive. Because when it comes to attractive city life its not just about seeking tolerance; it’s also about finding a place to do my hair, find my spices, boogey to my music. So these diversity leaders are helping their cities with the following three-prong communications effort.

  • Spread the word about the economic opportunities as the nation as whole struggles with a sluggish recovery. These cities are home for some of the largest companies in the nation, many of them in the FORTUNE 100. Mutual of Omaha, Union Pacific, and ConAgra in Omaha; Cardinal Health, Abercrombie & Fitch, Nationwide, Limited Brands, Huntington Bank in Columbus, Ohio; Fifth Third, Macy’s, Procter & Gamble, Kroger in Cincinnati; 3M, Target, Cargill, Best Buy, General Mills in Minneapolis; PNC, Humana, US Steel, Heinz in Pittsburgh; MillerCoors, Manpower, Rockwell, and Harley Davidson, Johnson Controls, Northwestern Mutual in Milwaukee. And then there’s the largest employer in the world in the middle of Bentonville, Ark. Wal-Mart is so much of a force in its headquarter town that some of its vendors have set up large facilities in the southern town specifically to serve the big box retailer—supersizing the retailer’s already outsized economic influence on the town.
  • With economic strength comes the benefit of increased tax revenues. Increased revenues have fueled a civic renaissance providing residents and visitors alike with a very cosmopolitan experience. In Omaha’s Market Square, the small-town quaintness of horse-drawn carriages meandering down cobblestone roads meets a metropolitan menu of sushi, Indian, French, and Latin fusion restaurants representing a savory selection of international cuisine typically reserved for the big city. Pittsburgh has transformed from a soot-producing steel town to a clean, landscaped happening urban hub. Cleveland’s Historic Warehouse District with its potted flower lined sidewalk cafes is reminiscent of European scenes. Milwaukee’s shuttered factories have been reborn as funky lofts for artists and restaurants and night clubs for hip professionals. Cincinnati’s historic riverfront on the Ohio River offers a large urban park experience that can be topped off in the evening with a cabernet sauvignon and a prime rib cooked medium rare.
  • Confront and cast off the legacy that these cities are not welcoming to racial and ethnic minorities and other underrepresented groups. A Cincinnati study found that despite the city’s growing diversity, a majority of its residents feel that still more diversity is needed and that they still fall short of providing a truly inclusive and welcoming spirit to outsiders. Cincinnati’s findings likely represent the feelings of those in many of our country’s second-tier cities and these cities know their work is not done.

These systematic, city-wide approaches already in action are the key to achieving greater diversity in these smaller cities. The next step involves metropolitan-wide collaborations with local businesses—grocery stores, beauty salons, barbershops and more—in an effort to truly meet the needs for lifestyle amenities that potential residents seek when contemplating a new home. The effort is a win-win for all involved—these cities and their residents and the companies located there. For an influx of greater diversity will mean a growing population with needs for all kinds of mainstream and exotic goods and services.

This trend is still evolving. Keep your eyes open. There’s an emerging diversity story here, in a second-tier city near you.

People of Color Feel Uncomfortable at Work

by Andrés T. Tapia – Stock-photo.214466XSmall.divbuspple

Many people of color feel that they can’t share their true selves in the workplace. They lead dual lives – one at work and one everywhere else. This is happening even as business leaders say they value diversity and multicultural fluency. Check out the piece on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network that talks about the latest study by the  Center for Talent Innovation. Let me know what you think.

Globalization Boomerang: Making the U.S. a Destination for Offshored Jobs – and What It Could Mean for Diversity

by Andrés T. Tapia –


Sending American jobs overseas has lost its cachet. Not only for sociopolitical reasons but also for economic ones.

The case for offshoring and outsourcing jobs overseas has weakened as an increasing number of U.S. manufacturers are choosing to look stateside for labor, a move that creates jobs and helps boosts the U.S. economy. So says Time in “The Economy’s New Rules: Go Glocal” (August 20, 2012). In fact, the Boston Consulting Group estimates that within five years, as many as 3 million high-skilled, high-demand manufacturing jobs could come back to the United States.

But the ability of American government and business to tend to the diverse talent pipeline – particularly of Latinos and Blacks – will be critical in the U.S. economy being able to seize the full benefits of the convergence of forces that could bring more jobs back to the USA. But before taking up this gauntlet, a look at what’s driving American companies to bring jobs back home:

  • Labor costs rising in China, India, Mexico, and other countries. The Chinese to U.S. wage ratio, for example, is projected to jump from 3 percent in 2000 to 17 percent by 2015. This is due both to accelerating wage increases in the emerging markets and slowing wage raises in the U.S. Also higher rates of corruption in the emerging markets compared to the U.S. drive up costs and risks. According to Transparency International, the BRIC countries are two to three times more corrupt in the business world.
  • Increasing number of manufacturing and construction jobs require a higher level of education. High tech manufacturing is requiring higher education from workers to run the robots on the assembly line. Even welders must now have in-house training or a community-college certification, not just a high school education to meet job requirements. By 2018, 63 percent of U.S. jobs will require post secondary training. U.S. workers in some blue-collar sectors have a technological edge that companies are rediscovering.
  • Rising energy costs means distance for shipping goods to the largest market, the United States, matters. Do the math. How many barrels of oil (not to mention carbon footprint units) does it take to ship that car from the Far East to the North American continent? GE has punched in the numbers and the result has led to GE shifting production of appliances from Mexico and China to Louisville, Ky. Many other companies of all sizes are reviewing the cost of transportation. Along with GE, firms like Seesmart (a small manufacturer of lighting products), Master Lock, and Caterpillar are finding the balance sheet weighing more heavily towards domestic production.
  • Automation means factories with fewer people – which then lowers the labor cost equation that has been leading companies to offshore. “Labor is a relatively small component” of costs, said GE’s Chief Executive Jeff Immelt, in a recent Reuters.com article. “That’s different today than it was 10 years ago.” GE just opened a new plant in Schenectady, N.Y. because of labor’s decreasing share of manufacturers’ costs. This, of course, cuts both ways in that it reduces the total number of jobs overall, but it nevertheless slows down the number that get shipped overseas because it’s more cost effective to simply keep them in the United States.
  • Companies want to bring jobs and operations closer to where their customers are. That emerging “locally grown” movement that has found its way to supermarket carts and restaurant tabletops is seeping into manufacturing. Mitch Free, who runs MFG.com, one of the world’s largest online marketplaces for the manufacturing industry, said in the previously mentioned Time article, “It’s all about regionalization and localization rather than globalization.” He noted that consumers are now demanding that things be newer, faster, and better so shortening the life cycle helps accomplish this. Citizens’ desire to slow down global warming also plays a part.

These trends are not just influencing American companies to bring jobs back home; they also are cajoling European and Asian companies to open up more plants in the United States. Airbus, the airplane manufacturer that is a symbol of European manufacturing pride, is opening up a plant in Montgomery, Ala. In making the announcement, its CEO, Fabric Brégier, cited “a more competitive labor and growth climate in the U.S.” Companies like Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen have been pumping up the local economies of cities around the nation by opening or expanding plants.

Back to the U.S.-based companies. There also seems to be an awakening on the part of some CEOs about how they are, in effect, eating their own young by having aggressively moved so many jobs overseas. When American businesses shift millions of jobs from home to outside, the domestic consumer market gets decimated. The result? Stifled business growth that causes economic blowback for these very companies.

Diversity and Inclusion’s Role

Now is the time to include American workers in any globalization strategies and efforts. In the past five years, we had moved from a U.S.-and-“rest of the world” paradigm to an emerging-“rest of the world”-and-declining-U.S. paradigm. Now it’s time to reframe it all to a “the world”-where-the-U.S.-is-a-region paradigm.

I engage this topic fully aware that as diversity and inclusion practitioners we are also tasked with ensuring a truly global approach to the work where we are caring for the inclusion and engagement of traditionally marginalized groups wherever our companies operate in the world. Zeus knows, we are still in diapers when it comes to truly being global in our mindset and knowledge about current social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics across the world’s timezones.

Nevertheless, in using this global mindset where the United States is not the center but one of various global regions, one of the marginalization issues we must address in the U.S. region is persistent high unemployment and the income disparities it deepens. In addition, the global economy’s vitality that is raising millions out of poverty still requires a vibrant U.S. economy with a positive outlook.

Now to respond to the gauntlet. As the offshoring tide begins to turn, diversity and inclusion must play a key role in capitalizing on ensuring these jobs fully come back.

On the diversity front, one dizzying risk is the uncertainty that there will be enough skilled workers for these positions. If we are not graduating half of our demographically booming Latino and Black kids from high school then it could kill the re-shoring of many of these jobs.

Business must urgently collaborate with government and not-for-profits to do everything possible much earlier in the education pipeline so that our students are getting and completing the education they need for contemporary jobs that are in demand.

We face a wrenching irony that at the moment of getting a shifting tide of jobs back that the skilled talent needed will not be there in a moment of still high unemployment.

On the inclusion front, what an opportunity to capitalize on a key competitive differentiator of American culture – creativity and innovation. Not only is this a hallmark of the American character, it’s the very thing we diversity and inclusion practitioners insist is the most compelling argument for inclusion – and this is that greater diversity leads to greater variety and richness of perspectives, that when energized and unleashed through an inclusive culture, leads to even greater creativity and innovation.

Diversity and inclusion practitioners have an important role to play in getting this word out – and in bringing U.S. jobs back in.

Heart Attacks in Women – 7 Symptoms to Know

by Andrés T. Tapia


Rushing recently through Jackson-Hartsville International Airport in Atlanta I was stopped in my tracks by the billboard above.

With few words and compelling pictures, the billboard’s message prompted me to consider an issue I had not even thought about. Heart attacks. Every 90 seconds someone’s mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, aunt, or niece suffers a heart attack. Turns out heart disease is the Number One cause of death for women, outpacing breast cancer, strokes, and domestic violence.

By now, most of us are familiar with the typical symptoms of a heart attack. Crushing pain. Feeling of fullness or squeezing pain in the chest or upper portions of the body. Shortness of breath. Nausea.

The life-and-death issue of this knowledge? These are the typical symptoms that make men hurry to the nearest emergency room. Turns out that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost two-thirds of women who die of sudden heart attacks have had no previous symptoms. And when women do present symptoms, they can be significantly different from the typical male’s symptoms.

It’s another example of the phenomenon I describe in my book, The Inclusion Paradox. And that is, in order to have true inclusion, we have to know how to constructively call out our differences instead of assume similarity.

Dr. Thomas Fisher, an emergency specialist and healthcare disparities expert who has taught at the University of Chicago and who now works for Health Care Services Corporation headquartered in Chicago, explains how calling out these differences can be a matter of life and death. He explains how physicians are trained to think about cardiac episodes as “crushing or pressure more like an elephant sitting on a chest.”

And when it comes to women, this is precisely the problem with the training. These are typical male symptoms. He also explains that there also can be racial differences in how the experience is described. According to Dr. Fisher, older African Americans often describe cardiac pain as “sharp,” which can lead doctors to another diagnosis. “If physicians don’t ask some follow-up questions, or describe it more carefully, that sharp chest pain may, in fact, be the type of pressure/crushing that leads to a cardiac diagnosis,” he says.

These life saving billboards pop up across the country including at a bus shelter in front of Jackson Park Hospital on Chicago’s Southside. It is part of a national public education campaign by the US Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health. The campaign encourages women and their families to learn the seven signs of a heart attack and to call 9-1-1 promptly.

Calling out our differences, whether in language or in experiences, can bridge the gap between doctors and patients, between confusion and clarity. Between life and death.

It’s about inclusion as a life-saving strategy.

Tattoo Barbie and the Power of Pop Culture

by Andrés T. Tapia –TatooBarbie

Pop culture has a way of both reinforcing traditional cultural mores and  also of mainstreaming outlier messages and attitudes. And particularly in the era of diversity and inclusion, Barbie has unexpectantly played a cultural changing role in this way.

For more than 50 years, Barbie, that mainstream America icon has enchanted or annoyed girls and women of all ages. It could be that Barbie’s pop culture stature has been a mirror of the ever changing mainstream society’s views of what it means to be a young woman.  After decades of traditional beauty queen obsessions with shopping and looking great, she started crossing gender role lines as an astronaut, a pilot, and a Nascar driver among 120 other occupations. As times changed, so have her friends who’ve become more multicultural: African American (Christie), Hispanic (Teresa) and Asian (Dana).

And now, to both the horror and delight of millions, we have Tattoo Barbie. The recently released tattoo Barbie is providing new fodder for debate. Women, both for and against tattoos, have weighed in on this latest Barbie version.

The negative  comments surface on a cyclical basis every time Barbie pushes the envelope. Some concerns are about whether she contributes to young girls’ and women’s insecurities about their body image. Do her impossible body dimensions encourage eating disorders and low self-esteem? Is she an appropriate role model for what adults want girls to think and believe? So while Mattel blew it when a version of talking Barbie said, “Math class is tough” Tattoo Barbie is hip and tough while still maintaining that ability to connect with the mainstream. And that very ability to normalize the cultural edge is precisely where her power for influencing and changing cultural interpretations lies.

While many may still cringe at Barbie’s materialism and impossible figure, Mattel has helped manstream diversity that has been scary or mysterious for many. She becomes a channel to try out new ways of being a girl and young woman. Now a group of Barbie fans is petitioning Mattel to create a bald Barbie. This is to help girls still feel pretty even though they’ve lost their hair because of chemotherapy treatments for cancer. The bald Barbie Facebook page has been “liked” by nearly 150,000 visitors as the momentum continues to grow.

Another group has taken a more do-it-yourself approach. African American women in Ohio have taken donated Barbies and restyled their hair to reflect a more natural hairstyle for black girls. Fro-lific, a Columbus, Ohio group of women committed to natural hair, admits that Mattel offers various African American versions of Barbie and her friends. Still, Fro-lific members maintain that most black Barbies have hair that seems more chemically straightened than a reflection of the typical texture of black girls’ hair. They donated the “naturalized” Barbies to a local girls’ organization during the Christmas holiday.

Whether sporting “tats,” going bald, or naturally “tressed,” whether she’s a bride or a Nascar driver, Barbie can play a role in influencing a change in cultural attitudes toward difference.

Getting Minorities Outside and Into National Parks

by Andrés T. Tapia –



Although I grew up in Lima, Peru, my urban upbringing was tempered by frequent forays into the countryside–hiking in the Andes, traveling to the Amazon rainforest, and visiting my maternal grandparents in a rural area of Washington State. Being outside was a regular part of my childhood. But that’s not true for too many minority youngsters and their families.

According to several studies, including a presentation by the National Park Service (NPS), visiting a national park is overwhelmingly a white family’s experience. About 91% of national park visitors are white. Even when you look at all outdoor recreation, minority participation lags far behind–80% of all outdoor recreationists are white, according to the Outdoor Foundation. That situation hasn’t changed much since the 1960s.

Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, who is African American, has said numerous times that he is more likely to meet a visitor from Japan or France than an African American or Latino family in the park. Getting minorities into our national parks has become such a big deal that Oprah devoted a 2-part program to the subject, where she admitted to never having visited one before. Even the Obama family vacation to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon sparked national attention.

Black, Latino, Asian and Native American families just aren’t going outdoors, let alone visiting a national park. The NPS, headed by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, has recognized this gap and, as it approaches its 100th birthday in 2016, is trying to do something about that situation.

Part of that effort was the 2009 partnership with noted historical documentarian Ken Burns and his 6-episode documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Check out a video preview here.


An offshoot of the documentary is the Untold Stories Project, where NPS stories focus on the contributions of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and American Indians to the park system. The Project seeks to engage under-represented minorities in the nation’s National Parks. Here’s one video about the project.

As with many diversity initiatives, a critical issue behind this push (aside from the NPS’ legal and ethical mandate) is the realization that much of the future support for our national parks will fall to the same ethnic groups that are not visiting the parks today. If today’s minority youth don’t develop a connection to our national lands, it’s likely they won’t support the park system as adults.

Interestingly, some of the research behind this attendance gap delves into what discourages minority families from visiting the parks. Once the studies adjusted for socioeconomic factors, the main difference was…yes…culture. Those of us on the crosscultural front lines understand that what motivates, engages, and appeals to mainstream sensibilities may not hold similar attraction to families coming from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. For instance, where a white families may find the iconic view of the sun setting over the rim of the Grand Canyon appealing and engaging, Latino and African American families may prefer their nature forays to include a gathering of friends and relatives. Increasing diversity in our national parks–in attendance and employment–means more than just making them available and accessible. It means confronting the different experiences and expectations that all guests seek from these national treasures.

A you can see, the Inclusion Paradox, the power of constructively calling out differences, shows up in all aspects of society…even outdoors.

U.S. Women’s Soccer: Not Quite America’s Team

by Andrés T. Tapia –WomensSoccerTeam_2.

This article was published by the New America Media.

What a thrill. What pride. What a show of skill and prowess by the US women’s national soccer team in the 2011 Women’s World Cup even as they lost in penalty shots to Japan on Sunday.

Too bad that this fabulous squad does not yet quite look like America.

Wambach made magnificent header goals. Rapinoe great centers. Boxx streaking shots from outside the box. I cheered them along, as they deserved to be cheered, and relished their hard fought battle on behalf of a nation.

But my feelings were bittersweet. In a roster of 21 players, there are only two Latinas and no Blacks or Asians. In the team picture of bright, young, exuberant, and inspiring faces, the hues and shades of a multicultural America that is 30% racial/ethnic are quite limited.

There is something deeply amiss in the lack of diversity in both the women and men’s national soccer teams. Not only because 1/3 of the nation is missing in their composition, but because when we look at the age range of those who play professionally the gap is even more striking: 40% of this age group are people of color.

Further, given soccer’s popularity, particularly in the Latino community, this lack of diversity can’t be excused. While it can be said legitimately about golf, tennis, and swimming that the pipeline of diverse talent in the game is significantly limited given low participation numbers by minority children at the entry point of the pipeline, the same cannot be said about this most populist of sports, futbol.

Yes, golf, tennis, and swimming must find ways to get more minorities involved, not only for the sake of these marginalized communities, but also for the sake of the vitality of these sports. By limiting the talent pool it draws from, is it any coincidence the US has not dominated in golf or tennis in the past decade? But soccer has a huge built-in advantage over these other sports even as the US Tennis Association (USTA) significantly steps up its efforts to introduce tennis to ten-year-old kids of color. But the massive numbers of female and male participants of color in soccer are getting bypassed by colleges, US Soccer teams, and pro-soccer farm systems.

As one looks at the player roster both in women and men’s soccer, how is it that diversity, in this sport has been whitewashed?

When I played on the varsity soccer team at Northwestern University, I was the only Latino on the team — and a walk-on from South America and not a Hispanic American at that — and Floyd the only black. Granted, NU was not that diverse to begin with, but surely, in the soccer subculture there should have been some sort of over-indexing of diversity.

To increase the diversity of the US teams – not only to be truly America’s team, but also to ensure that US teams remain competitive – an all-out diversity effort must be launched.

First, more minority children must be enrolled in the largest soccer youth programs around. When I coached my daughter’s AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) girls’ soccer team, the $100+ fees were out of reach for many working class Latino families. To Highland Park AYSO’s credit, it began instituting a sliding scale fee funded by local individuals and companies. But while this upped participation some, the lack of relations between the white and Latino communities made it hard to spread the word about the program.

And even when more Latino youngsters did participate, coaches — many new to the sport of soccer themselves — did not know how to reconcile the differing expectations from Latino parents when practice schedules conflicted with work schedules at the family store or other business. And given standard “fairness” principles, the “no practice, no play” policy killed any nascent enthusiasm among working-class and immigrant kids and parents.

The barriers to entry in the more competitive youth travel soccer leagues are even higher given the $1000+ fees and far away road games that assume parents have cars and free weekends to schlep their cleat-clad kids.

But the institutions that truly have no excuse for their lack of diversity on their soccer teams are colleges. Thousands of girls and boys nationwide are playing on public middle-and high school soccer teams. Here participation is free, school busses transport the teams to their matches, and immigrant parents have at least some working knowledge about school culture that they don’t have about para-organizations such as AYSO and travel soccer.

Title IX, which demanded the playing field be evened out for collegiate women in terms of budgets, facilities, and scholarships, is the number one reason women’s sports in the US has risen to the world-class caliber we saw in Sunday’s World Cup. But like in corporate America, women’s gains have unfortunately ended up being white women’s gains, with Black, Latina, Asian, and Native American women conspicuously absent as beneficiaries of powerfully important gender diversity programs.

To break through we need US Soccer, college soccer scouts, and parents to shift their assumptions and behaviors.

In machista societies like the Latino one, girls have to be seen as legitimately able to compete in sports for fun or career just as boys are. Scouts need to get comfortable going into barrio and inner city schools and to suburbs dominated by immigrants just like football and basketball scouts started doing a generation ago.

And US Soccer can up the ante by insisting its scouts and coaches source greater diversity for players considered for the US uniform.

Because that uniform belongs to all of us.

Corporate Boards Continue to Miss Out on Diversity

by Andrés T. Tapia –

silhoutte.boarddirectYou would think that by now we would still not be hearing the  clichéd excuses of “we can’t find any,” or “it will take too long to find someone,” or “is it even that important?”

What the excuses are defending is the lack of diversity on corporate boards. Unfortunately, we’ll probably hear these excuses even more as explanations to Janell Ross’ article in the Huffington Post where she reports that  “white men’s already dominant control of the boards that oversee the nation’s largest corporations widened during the last six years,” according to a new report issued by the Alliance for Board Diversity.

For the Fortune 100 between 2004 and 2010, white men gained 32 board seats while African American men lost 42. According to the report, there are nearly 900 companies in the Fortune 1000 that do not have a single Hispanic board member, and of the Fortune 100 only half have a Latino board member. This growing homogeneity is occurring at the same time as the Hispanic population is exploding and the country grows even more diverse. Such an increase in white male representation defies not only common sense but also business sense.

As diversity and inclusion (D&I) champions understand, but the reluctant CEOs and board members in this report don’t seem to realize, the business and financial benefits of diversity can intensify an organization’s competitiveness, innovation, and connection to customers. Just look at these stunning findings on gender diversity on boards:

A 2007 Catalyst study examining corporate finances between 2001 and 2004–a period of boom and bust–found that companies with women on their boards outperformed those without women in several key ways. Among the study’s findings: Fortune 500 companies that ranked in the top 25 percent for female board member inclusion produced on average a 53 percent better return on equity, a 42 percent difference in profits, and a 66 percent difference in return on invested capital when compared to companies with the least gender-diverse boards.

So the low diversity on boards not only causes dismay from an inclusion perspective, but companies with little board diversity make themselves vulnerable to blind spots to threats plus they may be limited in seizing economic opportunities.

Perhaps a key issue concerning board diversity, according to Lissa L. Broome, a professor at University of North Carolina School of Law who researches the issues of diversity on boards, is the tendency for key players to ignore or at least avoid talking about difference. Such hesitancy represents the underlying issue in the Inclusion Paradox, which provides ways to lean into and make the most of that discomfort.

If we don’t find ways to do this, our companies will be forfeiting a major trump card in high stakes global competitiveness.

Ancestry.com Launches More than 250,000 African American Historical Records

by Andrés T. Tapia –

Who are we? Where do we come from? What surprises exist in our family backgrounds?

These are the questions that Ancestry.com, the online family history resource,  promise to help people answer. And in the spirit of inclusion, they’re ensuring their research casts a wide net to find the historical records of different demographic groups.

Recently the company launched more than 250,000 new historical records that document African American family history. These official records go back to the Civil War and include more than 3.2 million slave records, and thousands of accounts from former slaves. I love this outreach as captured in the following commercial to current and potential African American subscribers that comfortably and inclusively lives out the inclusion paradox of calling out differences.

More than black families will have their eyes opened. According to Ancestry.com, one in nine Americans has African roots. And nearly 35 million Americans could find a slave ancestor in their family background. Rest assured, not all of those who find one in their background will be black.

Sesame Street Helps Women Love Their Hair

by Andrés T. Tapia

She’s a little brown Muppet in a pink dress with a big message. “Don’t need a trip to the beauty shop, ‘cause I love what I got on top. It’s curly and it’s brown and its right up there!…You know what I love? That’s right, my hair!” she belts out while bouncing about and dancing. Check it out here.


And with that uplifting message backed by a torrent of women sharing it across the Internet, this Sesame Street puppet has cut right to core of issues surrounding self-identity, self-esteem, and self acceptance. For many African American women, it’s a message that’s both affirming and empowering. But it hasn’t always been that way. I spoke with several African American women, who had viewed the video. “Why didn’t we have this when I was growing up?” asked Loren Simmons, an executive at the YWCA Metro Chicago who wears dread locks, which are also called locs. “The video made me feel good and it’s about time we celebrate our hair,” she said.

Most of the time, mainstream culture does not celebrate the natural state of African American hair and many black women bear the brunt of that disdain. “While hair for black women could be their crowing glory, for some, depending on the family they grow up in and the self esteem they have, it can be such a sad and sore spot in people’s lives,” said Dr. Philipia Hillman, a consultant in Washington D.C. who also wears locs.

The common standard of beauty says to be considered beautiful, a woman’s crowing glory has to be long, straight, bouncy and…blond. The exact opposite of what most African American hair looks like. Yet even black women who have tresses that come close to that description can experience their own issues around the subject. Kimberly Crooms, a communications consultant whose hair is naturally straight, remembers, “Growing up there were always lots of comments about my hair.” The downside to that admiration, according to Crooms, was that others were more attached to her hair than she was. “When I cut my hair, which I’ve done many times, the people around me would just have fits. They felt that my hair belonged to them,” she said.

That mainstream cultural message continues to affect some young girls and their families. You can spot its impact when two little African American girls ask their Dads why they don’t have long, silky, and straight hair.

The fathers’ responses? If you’re Joey Mazzarino, head writer for Sesame Street, co-author of the song “I Love My Hair” and father of Segi who was born in Ethiopia, then you create a Muppet and write a song that celebrates your daughter’s hair. And if you’re actor/comedian Chris Rock, you produce a documentary, “Good Hair,” that takes a look at the multi-billion-dollar hair care industry to find answers for your daughter, Lola.

What both efforts discovered is how strong cultural messages are. And cultural messages, like those reflected by the hair care industry, are big business. While this singing Muppet has touched many with her message, she has also helped to accelerate cultural change. And maybe, just maybe,  broadend the definition of beauty.

Comedy and Tragedy: Pop Culture’s Two-Faced Approach to Diversity and Inclusion, Part 2

by Andrés T. Tapia — comedytragedy

In Part One of this series, I shared my thoughts about the lack of diversity on the big screen. Here, I tackle television.


Although they represent 12 percent of the population, people with disabilities are only one percent of prime-time TV characters. There are even fewer positive, affirming roles for a character with a disability.

So why, in this paean of diversity, is Artie, a character who uses a wheelchair, played by a person without a disability? It’s mind-bending that, in the midst of an exceptionally inclusive move to portray a positive, productive, highly talented character, the Glee producers send a stunningly negative message–as described in an Huffington Post entry– that those with a disability are so not able–that they can’t even be relied on to play one of their own. Wow.

The same thing happened when Abigail Breslin (from “Little Miss Sunshine) was cast as young Helen Keller in the Broadway revival of “The Miracle Worker.” A hearing actor was selected for a deaf role in the off-Broadway “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” Daniel Day-Lewis played a man with severe cerebral palsy in “My Left Foot,” and Tom Cruise acted the part of a paralyzed Vietnam veteran in “Born on the Fourth of July.”  Angela Johnson Meadows’ post, “Where is Disability in the Hollywood Diversity Discussion?” offers additional insights.

The Cleveland Show

And why do the creators of “The Cleveland Show,” a smart, funny, and popular TV show about a black family, use a white actor, Mike Henry, to play the lead role of the black family patriarch? Again, in the midst of an inclusionary creation, a resounding exclusionary message is sent that blacks don’t have the skills, not even to portray themselves, not even in voice. Double wow.

We used to shake our heads when hearing about the old times, when white actors put on black face, or when they wore braids to play Native Americans. Now we see: Hollywood is still doing it!

We begin to understand how exclusion begins. It goes back to who’s being allowed to create and cast programs. The character from “The Cleveland Show” has its genesis on “Family Guy,” another animated show with a white creator and an all-white cast providing the characters’ voices. Because it would be inconsistent to change the actor who provided Cleveland’s voice once the character got his own show, the argument goes, it’s necessary to keep the same actor.

So, Cleveland’s visible diversity—and it is great to have a strong character of color in the show—masks the lack of diversity below the waterline among the writers, producers, and actors. Making it, in effect, a blackface cartoon.

Modern Family”

I love this show! Not only is it a contemporary and insightful exploration of today’s diversity issues as they play out in blended families, but it’s consistently hilarious, smart, and incisive in plot and dialogue. I applaud the creators’ and actors’ willingness to explore, through humor, sensitive diversity issues such as: What does it mean to “be a man” for the gay couple of Mitchell and Cameron? What are the lies that spouses, children, and parents tell each other? What cultural tensions exist between Latinos and European Americans that reach beyond superficial jokes about habits to more deeply expose differences in worldviews?


Why are there no black lead characters? For a show that has set out to elaborately address diversity issues in multiple ways, this is a glaring omission. True, it is an unfair burden for one show to address all diversity issues or to address them equally. I understand not only the dilution that would take place from a writing perspective, but also the apparent condescension involved in pandering to all constituencies. But for the African-American dimension to be missing–the genesis diversity issue in American culture–is a statement.

As I think about that inherent statement, and I am speculating here, I don’t believe it’s an “anti” thing. I believe it’s a fear thing. I can imagine a group being overlooked or deemed too small to be addressed, but in a show about diversity one just doesn’t overlook blacks.

Is it possible in today’s environment writers feel relatively safe writing smart, non-edgy, affirming comedy about gays, Latinas, youth, and older people, but not racial issues—particularly black and white issues? Could it be that writers felt they could not lean into making comedy of racial issues, even with their affirming, insightful philosophy to inclusion? And, if so, why not?

This apparent hesitation–actually, avoidance–reflects how too-hot-to-handle race still is in the United States. One sign of psychological health is the ability to laugh at oneself. Or, one’s group. At some level we now can laugh about Latinos, gays, and even our own preoccupation with inclusion, which is all good, but when it comes to race–particularly black and white–in America, we still can’t make it a family prime time laughing matter.

Application to Corporations

Don’t underestimate the corporate diversity implications regarding what pop culture can and cannot manage. If bold Hollywood runs away from dealing with race in a mainstream TV program about diversity, what about corporate America’s ability and readiness to truly deal with race in the workplace?

This is what worries me about the full embrace and emphasis of “inclusion.” I believe inclusion has been a transformational addition to the work of diversity. It should be about all of us. Introverts, analytics, white males included. I worry that in casting this wide net we, at times, end up equating personality and thought pattern differences to the more difficult, painful dynamics of race. And in so doing, we end up minimizing it.

I love inclusion and the concepts behind it, in the same way I love “Modern Family.” But within the good thing there could be a fatal flaw that, if not addressed, could undermine the very thing “Modern Family,” “Glee,” “The Cleveland Show”–or corporate diversity and inclusion–are supposed to be about. That is, addressing at a root level the very things that keep “us versus them” firmly in place.

When we don’t address race head on–all that unfinished business that leaves a disproportionate number of blacks still standing on the bottom rungs–it may just be telling us something troubling about our ability to truly address what matters most as we run off, gleefully, embracing all those other wonderful things.

Measuring Diversity’s Pipeline: Take Five with Chicago United’s Gloria Castillo

by Andrés T. Tapia —

Castillo-7466cropped_CUaGloria Castillo is president of Chicago United, a racially diverse corporate membership organization, founded in 1968 in the aftermath of Chicago’s riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Its mission is to bring together diverse business leaders to improve race relations and increase access to opportunities for people of color in the Chicago metropolitan area. During her 7 years as president, Gloria has ushered in a 60% increase in the number of companies committed to developing minority talent pipelines. I’m privileged to call Gloria a close friend. Most recently she interviewed me at a CDO Roundtable she organized in Chicago, where she pulled out a dog-eared copy of The Inclusion Paradox and, as usual, engaged me in a stimulated Q&A with great questions and insights that then led to a enriching group dialogue with all who attended.

I invite you to check out Chicago United’s 7th Annual Changing Color of Leadership Conference and Bridge Awards Dinner. It’s a full day of thought-provoking and stimulating workshops and seminars led by well-informed leaders of diversity and inclusion. The day culminates with the Bridge Awards Dinner, where the Chicago-area’s most diverse group of business leaders gather on behalf of robust inclusion practices. The conference and dinner will be held on November 18, 2010 at the Hilton Chicago.

Take 1: Chicago United periodically publishes a “State of the Union” report on the health of the diversity talent pipeline in the Chicago area, and you are about to release the latest installment. What are the big headlines on the 2010 report?

Chicago United’s nationally recognized Corporate Diversity Profile (CDP) is a bi-annual survey that measures racial diversity specifically in the leadership ranks of large corporations, on corporate boards, and in executive level management. It is a benchmark for corporations to measure their progress in this area. It is unique in that, the 2010 CDP includes the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s comparative analysis of the impact of past recessions on employees of color.

Corporate Chicago has made significant strides in leveraging the abundant expertise and intellect of business people of color in its managerial and executive ranks. However, as the 2010 Profile reveals, there remains much room for improvement, especially given the setbacks dealt by the recent recession. This recession has dealt a blow to diversity and inclusion as the pipeline of people of color has been thinned by demotions and pay cuts. The pipeline was an indicator of positive movement in the 2008 CDP.

Also, the Fed’s historical recession data highlights that diverse communities continue to bear a disproportionate brunt of economic woes compared to whites. In the last 3 recessions, minorities, primarily African-Americans, have suffered the greatest unemployment burden relative to whites. An analysis of employment prior to the recession 2008 and the mid-recession 2009 indicates that African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts regardless of educational attainment.

Although there was only a slight gain in the Chairman/CEO office, Chicago’s most progressive corporations also named diverse professionals to key roles in both national and global operations. Based on the responses to the survey, it is clear that the intent is still in place to make greater use of diversity and inclusion in the face of the global war for talent.

Take 2: What have been the most significant headlines over the last 8 to 10 years?

More CEOs of color at Fortune 500 companies, including Kodak, American Express, Xerox, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s and others.

Minority firms are nearly 20% of all firms, but they receive less than 3% of all sales and receipts.

D & I has moved from being “the right thing to do” to a business imperative. The payoffs are greater satisfaction of executives and non-executives, retention of key talent, expanded multicultural markets, and enhanced R&D and innovation.

Take 3: One of Chicago United’s commitments is to increase economic opportunities for minority-owned businesses in Chicago, and with Chicago United’s help, the city became a leader in revenue generated by minority-owned businesses. In recent years, however, a number of other cities have surpassed Chicago in this area. Why do you believe this is so, and what can companies do to diversify their supplier base?

Other urban markets have provided intentional corporate support for minority business in their local area over the last 2 decades. Equal effort has been lacking in Chicago. While many Chicago-based corporations have robust minority business development programs, often they do not measure or track their local spend versus a national spend. This puts our Chicago based MBEs at a disadvantage when competing with companies that build scale with the support of their regional corporations.

The entire state of Illinois must do better in growing, attracting, and retaining minority-owned businesses. This requires a proactive commitment by the public sector and the private sector to grow these businesses. As the leader of a business organization, I work most closely with the private sector. Based on Chicago United’s work with its member companies, I know two things:

  • First, large companies agree that MBEs can meet and exceed the expectations they have of their business partners. Our proprietary research has shown that.
  • And second, large companies that are committed to the Chicago United Five Forward Initiative, our plan for regional economic growth through development of MBEs of scale, have increased their spend with MBEs despite the sluggish economy.

Companies must continue to look for and create opportunities to partner with qualified local MBEs. Additionally, they must maintain sound, constructive communication with them if their partnerships are to succeed. In return, companies will realize more innovative solutions to business challenges, cost savings and more by leveraging MBEs.

Take 4: One of Chicago United’s successful strategies has been to bring together diversity leaders and senior managers to collaborate. What does this collaboration look like?

Chicago United’s mission is to close the gap between race and business by fostering a candid discussion of the issues that hinder business growth and successful cross-cultural collaboration. To meet that mission, we provide programs that not only bring people together at the diversity and inclusion discussion table, but also drive results. Here are some examples of our results-driven advocacy:

  • The Corporate Diversity Officers Forums regularly engage 40 corporations in Chicago to share best practices and provide an opportunity for peer-to-peer learning and relationship building, tapping into the knowledge of Chicago’s diversity leaders.
  • The Chicago United Employee Network Group Forums have served as an opportunity for leaders of employee network groups (ENGs), human resource professionals, and members of senior management to share information, strategies and best practices around issues like organizing employee network groups; leveraging ENGs for professional growth and development; and the role of ENGs in corporate America
  • BoardLink connects emerging leaders of color from corporate Chicago with local nonprofit board opportunities where they will make important contributions to the community while enhancing their skills and expertise for future leadership roles in their careers. In 2011 with support of the Chicago Community Trust, Chicago United will offer nonprofit governance training delivered by the Center for Non Profit Management at the Kellogg School of Management.

Take 5: As a Latina executive, what is one of the biggest challenges you share with other minority women in corporate America? And what message do you have for companies on how they can enhance outreach to Latinas?

In this current economic environment when Latinos overall and, Latinas specifically, have suffered significant job loss and underemployment, it is critical to earn the trust and loyalty of this important workforce segment. That means, articulating a clear career path during the on-boarding process is critical along with ongoing development and leadership assignments. Recognition of individual achievements, but as part of a team environment, is also important. Recognition in a more public way appeals to our communal nature as well as positions the Latina as a leader in an environment where “the look” of leadership is changing. Finally, the Latino population is a young population with young families. The flexibility demanded by family life is particularly important to Latinas. A commitment to excellence coupled with flexibility is a powerful combination to build loyalty and retention.

Soulful Diversity: The Spirit’s Urgent Demand for Greater Inclusion

By Andrés T. Tapia

Art by Cheryl Harris White

(Art by Cheryl Harris White)

Today I had a new experience where at the invitation of a close friend, I delivered a sermon at a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I had never before attended this kind of faith group and I always love experiencing new communities and learning about what they are about. In preparing I got more acquainted with the history of two fused congregations (Unitarian and Universalist), which is quite diverse in the belief systems of its members who tend toward mysticism on the one hand, social justice on the other. And the mysticism, while having Christian roots also embraces Eastern practices. So open is this denomination that it even makes room for atheists. All this was good for me to know and, while using a Christian scripture as the teaching text, I needed to use language that worked for this broad spectrum of belief without diluting the power of the message. I invite you to listen in.


[One of the readings shared earlier in the service to frame the sermon was the following:]

“And who is my neighbor?“ the rabbi was asked.

The rabbi replied: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ –– Luke 10:29-35 (NIV)


Who is my neighbor? Jesus was asked.

This is really an inclusion question, isn’t? It’s basically asking, who should I consider to be part of my community?

In the New Testament’s Gospel of Luke narrative there’s a short back story that leads to this question. Let’s look at it:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The expert in the law answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But the man wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In this exchange a lot hangs in the balance, doesn’t it?

In the theological context of this conversation, it’s a question of what will lead to eternal life. Others who may not believe in the concept of eternal life may interpret it as a question about the meaning of life.

In either case, whether we live eternally or whether how we have lived our lives has eternal impact, the weight of the question is monumental. How are we to live our lives so that something sustainable, memorable, long-lasting, eternal comes of it?

So we listen in with anticipation to Jesus’ answer. And he first directs his questioner to the ancient scriptures when he says, “What is written in the Law?” And so the expert in the Law, like any good rabbi or preacher or lawyer, quotes chapter and verse. The first part of the answer is what we would expect from a religious script: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. But it doesn’t end there, does it? The scriptures also command that we “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

This is a moment of truth.

Because there are many ways to show or even pretend to love God. We can faithfully go to religious service, we can pray piously, we can quote the scriptures. But this neighbor clause is troubling. It’s troubling because it may be that much harder to fake love for neighbor than love for God.

It may indeed be harder to be inclusive that it is to be religious.

And so I can imagine a challenging edge to the question: “So who is my neighbor, rabbi.”

As we heard in the Story for All Ages, the answer is taken from the headlines where journalists live by the adage of “if it bleeds it leads”: There’s a man lying by the side of the road, beaten up by thieves who took what he had. The well off, the religious ones, the elite pass him by on their Blackberry-scheduled ways. And it is a Samaritan, who is lifted up as the role model of inclusion.

And this is an outrageous answer. On several fronts.

First, because of who Jesus holds up as the role model. The Samaritans were despised by a significant segment of Jews of that time, in particular the elite. They were considered a half caste people, a mixture of Jewish and Arab who practiced a heretical form of Judaism. Good Jews did not deal with Samaritans. They avoided their neighborhoods. Shunned them from participating in their society.

They were the Muslims, the Latinos, the African Americans of that time. The outsiders.

And secondly, it’s outrageous because of how Jesus elaborates on the question of what is necessary for eternal life. He doesn’t say, believe this or that doctrine, or pray every day, or go to religious service weekly. In fact, it’s not about belief or religious practice at all. But it’s about love of neighbor. And the answer is not theological or academic or about change management. It is practical and pragmatic. Indeed, one could argue that this is the practical answer to how to love the Lord God with all of one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind:

There is a man lying by the side of the road. And he is hurt. He is alone and forgotten. Shunned and ignored. And he needs help. He needs bandaging and food and water and a place to stay. He needs protection, a place to heal to become whole again.

Put simply, Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is both a literal and metaphorical message of who should we, you, I include in our circle of care. And his definition of inclusion is one that is about diversity.

That our neighbor is anyone we come across and see in need. It doesn’t matter what our profession and status is. It doesn’t matter the neighborhood we’re in. It doesn’t matter if we have a Lotus Notes schedule to follow. In fact, the eternal-impact action in that temporal moment is not “keep to the schedule” or “stick with the agenda” or “stay with the plan,” but rather tend to the person in need.

That’s how Martin Luther King, Jr. understood it when he declared that he wanted to be remembered as a Drum Major for Peace, Justice, and Righteousness. Who, using biblical language, would be remembered as someone who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those in prison. That he wants to be remembered as someone who “tried to love and serve humanity.” “All the other shallow things will not matter,” he preached. “Not money. Not fine and luxurious things.” He was after a life that would be eternal in its impact. And so it has been.

And so who is our neighbor? Here in Grayslake? Lake County? McHenry County? Kenosha County? Who is it that is laying by the side of the road, neglected, bleeding, robbed of their money, robbed of their opportunities, robbed of their housing, robbed of their dignity, robbed of their rights?

And here we must go back to the news headlines. Isn’t our neighbor the Latino undocumented worker who is facing a fierce onslaught to make him or her leave? There are children today in Waukegan and North Chicago and Wheeling who are terrified every time Papi must leave the house, even for a loaf of bread for dinner, that he may not return with the promised rolls. Breathlessly they await wondering if he has been taken and deported never to be seen again. Aren’t our neighbors all the brown-skinned people who fear that laws will be passed that allow for them to be pulled over by the police just because of the color of their skin or the accent of their speech or the fashion of their clothes?

Isn’t our neighbor the African American in North Chicago, Zion, Highland Park who fears being pulled over for driving while black, whose family and extended family may face some of the same infant mortality rates, graduation rates, and incarceration rates today as when King began his march on Selma?

Isn’t our neighbor the Muslim in America who is facing increased discrimination in the workplace, threats to burn the Koran, accusations of being a terrorist? Isn’t our neighbor the Jew who is facing anti-Semitic threats from nation states and Muslims and Christians?

As we think about who is our neighbor, as we think about what it takes to have a life with eternal impact, eternal life, as we think about what love looks like, as we think about the meaning of diversity and inclusion, imagine a pitch black stage and suddenly a spotlight on a man…or is it a woman…or maybe it’s a child…on the side of the road, bleeding, hurt. Foreclosed. Bankrupt. Hungry. Deported. Struggling to graduate. Waiting for help –– waiting for a neighbor to stop and see him or her and show them love.

When President Barack Obama was asked about all the controversy swirling around Muslims in a press conference the day before this year’s September 11, he gave a very important answer that ended with this:

“I’ve got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan in the uniform of the United States armed services. They’re out there putting their lives on the line for us. And we’ve got to make sure that we are crystal-clear for our sakes and their sakes they are Americans and we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don’t differentiate between them and us. It’s just us.”

And this could have been an answer about Latin American and Asian immigrants. About African Americans. About Jews. About gays and lesbians. About those with disability. About veterans. About our youth. These are our neighbors whom we must love as ourselves. And who work in our backyards, our restaurants, our companies, our armed services. Who watch our children. Whose hard work and taxes serve the common good.  Who help us in our places of need. These are our neighbors as much as the person to your left and right.

There’s no them and us.

It’s just us.

Helping our neighbor in need can of course be scary; controversial… fraught with political and social polarization with code words such as Samaritan, half caste, not from here. Not one of us. No different in Jesus’ time or our time. To respond, to love…to love our neighbor as ourselves we need courage. And as we heard in the 2nd reading, Eleanor Roosevelt gives us practical and inspired advice: “We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up…discovering we have the strength to stare it down. We must learn to cast out fear.”

Who is our neighbor. My neighbor. Your neighbor. Who are you going to include? Will you cross the lines of diversity? Who is the us?

As you can see, this thing about diversity and inclusion is not at its core about mentoring and flyers in Spanish or training programs or international potlucks. Rather, it’s work of the spirit. It’s work of love. It’s work with eternal impact.

After sharing his parable, Jesus asked his questioner, “Which of these three – the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan – do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

The rabbi said, “Go and do likewise.”


Delivered on September 26, 2010 at the Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Grayslake, Illinois