Dealing with our differences

Jul 31, 2001

by Anton Zuiker

When Cincinnati erupted in social unrest last Spring after the police killing of an African-American suspect, Marlene Feder was prepared to make a difference.

Feder had recently earned a master’s degree from Cleveland State University in an unheralded but important new program. Using her training from CSU’s Diversity Management Program, she helped the local office of the National Conference for Community and Justice organize a Media Day of Dialogue to cultivate an honest and open discussion of diversity. Facilitating such discussion, says Feder, makes people “bump up against their differences.” And that’s just what the Diversity Management program wants, says CSU psychology professor Deborah Plummer, director of the Diversity Management Program.

Diversity, says Plummer, is all aspects of human difference. More than the color of one’s skin, diversity encompasses age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, nationality, ability, personality, class and more. As the American workforce has become increasingly more diversified (read less white male), the need to train managers and executives able to balance these differences has grown.

That’s what the Greater Cleveland Roundtable determined in 1997. They wanted to find ways to train corporate and institutional leaders in the ways of diversity management. So the CSU psychology department implemented a certificate program in conjunction with the private Virginia-based NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, an organization that was formed in 1947 to eliminate oppression by providing training in the theory and practice of group dynamics.

Plummer soon realized, though, that more people were interested in a full master’s degree, and changed the program accordingly. This fall, the fifth class – in academic parlance, it’s called a cohort – includes 15 masters students and two seeking the certificate. The 36-semester hour program can be completed in 18 months.

“Our goal is to train practitioners who can produce meaningful change,” says Steve Slane, a psychology professor and instructor in the diversity program. “The program is based on the scholar-practitioner model – our graduates are practitioners but also scholars.” The Diversity Management Program is meant to train students to respond to diversity issues in the workplace and social events like Cincinnati’s unrest. But it also encourages students to produce new ways of thinking about diversity.

“We’re putting the boundaries around the field,” says Plummer of her program and its graduates.

The diversity management graduate program is based on the adult learning model, which integrates a person’s thoughts and feelings, work and life experiences. Students gather once a month for intense three-day workshops, where they learn, discuss, play out and create ways to approach diversity. “A lot of personal development comes out of the program, says Slane.

“I remember a lot of tear-jerker sessions,” says Darryl Tukufu about the discussions in which participants say what is on their minds. Tukufu had been the president and executive director of the Greater Cleveland Roundtable when the program started, and he used his Diversity Management certificate later in his role as an independent diversity trainer in Cleveland. Last month, he became the executive director of the Urban League Nashville branch.

Workshops for this year’s program include collaborative conflict management, diversity across cultures, and human interaction in a diverse world. The program also includes three longer foundation courses, in social, organizational and personnel psychology. Students must also complete a practicum and a thesis.

“This is the only program like this in the country,” says Plummer. “And it’s turning out to be the MBA for human resource professionals.” (Most corporate diversity programs are organized by the human resources department.) But police officers and business executives are completing the program also, and students have come from Detroit, New York City and South Africa. And in the new cohort starting this month is a woman who works as a stand-up comedian. She wants to use diversity more effectively in her comedy, says Slane.

The academic big picture, says Plummer, includes two ways to approach society: diversity and social justice. “Social justice comes out of an advocacy model, while the diversity framework comes out of inclusion – how to bring together differences and make them work together.” The Diversity Management program is rooted in this diversity framework, as well as Gestalt psychology. “We emphasize self-awareness. You must know who you are.”

“I’m a straight white Jewish woman,” says Feder, a public relations manager for Procter & Gamble. “I hadn’t given particularly much thought to diversity. Being white, I didn’t have to.” But a 13-day training seminar sponsored by her employer “opened her eyes” to diversity and sparked an incredible passion for social justice work.

Feder then read about CSU’s program in a P&G diversity newsletter, printed on fluorescent green paper and left on her desk amid a pile of other papers. She’d always wanted to get a master’s degree, but she had no interest in the master’s de rigeur at P&G, the MBA. To earn the diversity master’s, she commuted to Cleveland, using her vacation leave and the company tuition reimbursement program. Now, 20 percent of her time is devoted to diversity programs in the company, and she spends her free time in volunteer work with the National Conference for Community and Justice facilitating workshops for adults and children.

“It’s refreshing to work with young people – it’s surprising how honest they are. Adults are acculturated to be polite, and sometimes that can be a barrier to honest communication.” Adolescent frankness, she says, makes it easier to get to the heart of an issue.

Plummer and Slane are beginning an evaluation of the program, to determine how effective it has been. If Feder and Tukufu are examples, though, the diversity management practitioners coming out of Cleveland State University are in the right places at all the right times. They will be the ones to lead local, regional and national discussions on such topics as racial profiling by police, the exclusion of gays from the Boy Scouts of America, and how to promote professional women’s basketball – but also, perhaps more importantly, how you and I relate to each other at the water cooler.

Dealing With Our Differences Northern Ohio Live Magazine, August 2001

Anton Zuiker

© 2000 Zuiker Chronicles Publishing, LLC