Friday, April 28, 2017

Moving for What Matters

Oppression reinvents itself and creeps its way into every facet of our human existence which means the act of devaluing of ‘others’’ lives gets harder and harder to spot if you’re not aware of our history in the US. Diversity encompasses all identities and forms of human experience including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, religion, ability status, LGBTQ identity, age, gender identity, and language. I won’t be able to tackle all identities in one post, so I will address race and LGBTQ identity.

Our staff at NAMI Wisconsin is all white. Being a mental health oriented nonprofit, though, we’re all white women with the exception of Nate, our associate director. Ironically, Nate is moving up to the director position as the only man in the organization.  During my time with NAMI I have seen the lack of representation from and outreach to communities of color and LGBTQ communities. I have asked the question ‘why is this and what can we do about it?’ to various professionals and I’m typically met with ‘of course we’re trying to reach those communities; it’s just hard’. Everyone’s intentions are good, but there is minimal effort to engage and establish authentic relationships with the communities most underserved by the mental health care system. People from marginalized communities face multiplied barriers when seeking mental health care, including higher levels of stigma, less access to treatment, a culturally insensitive health care system, bias and discrimination in treatment settings, and lack of access to health insurance. Mental health oriented people know this! So why does NAMI feel so complacent?

In Making Differences Matter, David A. Thomas and Robin J. Ely (1996) state that “thinking about diversity in terms of individual group representation inhibits effectiveness.” I’ve seen this in the way nonprofits have confidently claimed ‘We’re not homophobic! We have two gay people on staff!’ and continue to not collect relevant data on the LGBTQ clients served. There is a great example of diversity being leveraged problematically in the show Black-ish. Andre moves up in his company into a VP position. Little does he know this position is now titled “VP of Urban Division” to which he responds in a scene with his wife, “They put me in charge of black stuff!” Andre breaks down the company’s idea of “diversity” flawlessly in the episode, explaining that he dreamt of becoming the first black VP of the company, but that he felt pushed aside once again being placed in a specifically “black” division of the company. Thomas and Ely would say this company’s approach is the second path organizations often take: assigning people of color or women to jobs where they only interface with others like them. (1996)

When it comes to cultural competence trainings for staff, many people from majority groups feel defensive. Check out this video to have a laugh and understand the absurdity of how companies inadvertently (or intentionally, depending on how institutionally you’re looking at it) silence people from marginalized groups.

Cultural humility is an approaching paradigm shift in many fields. Humility takes the place of competence because one can never truly be ‘competent’ at another person’s individualized experience. I am not advocating for people to stop learning about others unlike them- we still need to do that; rather, it’s important to not place any assumptions on others and expect them to play a certain role according to what we think we know about them.

Lastly, Thomas and Ely (1996) discuss the move from assimilation, to differentiation, back to a more balanced new model: learning and effectiveness. This practice requires companies to concern themselves with diversity in a way that upholds the dignity and self-worth of all employees, particularly the employees from marginalized groups. They lay out eight preconditions to making this shift, and I am especially interested in #6, “The culture must make workers feel valued.” People need to feel like they matter. At the core of  all the elements that go into organizational effectiveness, if people don’t feel they have inherent worth, nothing else matters.


Thomas, David A., Ely, Robin J. (1996) “Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity”. Understanding and Managing Diversity. Prentice Hall.