A Passion for Diversity

by Simma Liebermann

Some people work at their jobs because they have to make a living, and they get to

express themselves after work. Some people have careers that they love, and have a hard time not taking home their work with them when they go home. And then there are successful people in the diversity field. They have a passion for diversity and they live their work. Whether or not they take their work home with them, their work is always driven by the values they live every day, and their lives are driven by the values they promote at work.

When organizations began to embrace diversity in the 1980s,

many of them thought that diversity training was the answer. They thought that if every employee attended a diversity training class, biases, complaints and lawsuits would disappear and everyone would work together in harmony forever. There were two kinds of people engaged in diversity training, education and organizational development. There were those who thought of it as program or a trend. These people read a few books, took a train-the-trainer class or bought one in the mail and called themselves experts. The second group knew that it was a process, not a one day program and that in order to create change they needed to live it, learn it and continually develop their passion for it. They were cognizant of the need to integrate diversity into the business strategy of any organization and the rest of their lives. They also knew there were no quick fixes—that it took patience, and time—but change was possible.

The first group lost interest and went on to something else but people in the second group are still here helping to create change They’re working to create inclusive environments where all people can do their best work and have their individual skills and talents, recognized, appreciated and utilized.

I wanted to know more about this passion for diversity and where it came from. What drives some individuals to maintain their personal mission, vision and values despite resistance, challenges and nay sayers. I interviewed four people whose passion for diversity is so great it’s like a magnetic force that continues to get stronger and attract everything in its path. These four people are Terry Howard, Director of Diversity for Texas Instruments; Michele Atlas from Workforce Diversity Network; Deb Dagit, Executive Diversity Director at Merck; and, Edgar Quiroz, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Innovation at Kaiser Permanente.

I asked all of them, /Why/ did you get involved in diversity? Here are their stories:

Terry Howard, Director of Diversity at Texas Instruments, has a long-standing and personal connection with diversity. “As an African-American male, I’ve been involved in and experienced diversity my entire life. From a career standpoint, I actually got involved in this work by ‘default.’ During the mid 1980s, I managed a group charged with delivering employment and EEO service for AT&T. Our client base was very diverse and that itself heightened my interest in this work. The challenge of fostering awareness of that growing diversity and leveraging it was most intriguing to me. In 1986, I read the Hudson Institute report Workforce 2000. This ignited me and I knew I wanted to help break new ground.”

Terry’s passion and his involvement in diversity continue to grow. He now supports 15 diversity affinity groups at Texas Instruments, as well as the many business level diversity committees and their annual diversity conferences. “In between, I write a monthly internal diversity column and issue periodic diversity tips on the full range of diversity topics, and I speak on diversity and inclusion at meetings and retreats internally and externally .” Recently he founded the Diversity Connection Symposium for Texas Diversity Professionals, a group consisting of representatives from Shell Oil, Price Waterhouse, First American, Intel, Intuit, JC Penny, Delotte and others and delivered talks in France and China. He takes his passion for diversity and inclusion to the community, having participated in a community march against hate. “One of the things I’m most proud of is my role in the successful integration of religion and faith in the workplace amid lots of skepticism.” He said that people were still talking about the standing room only session “When Traditional Religion Meets Sexual Orientation”. When asked what drives him his reply was, “My passion is driven by my curiosity about the far-reaching implications of diversity and getting organizations to see that connection. It never stops.”

Deb Dagit, Executive Director of Diversity for Merck, told me that she had lived months at a time from when she was 11 to 16 in the Shriners Hospital to receive treatment for a bone condition that resulted in fractures and bone deformities. She was there with other children who had bone and burn disabilities from all over the world. “I became close to kids from all over the world who were also living in the hospital for months at a time, cut off from families and "normal" life . I learned what we had in common was more significant than what was different, regardless of our cultural differences."

During the time she spent in public school she was separated from the rest of her class as schools were not required to integrate children with disabilities and therefore there were many restrictions on how she was allowed to attend . She had to sit right next to the teacher’s desk and was not allowed to go to recess or lunch with the other kids. In describing her experiences she says, “Because of how I was treated, I related to other kids who were also seen as needing extra attention from the teacher, whether for behavioral issues or learning challenges . Issues of fairness, respect and inclusion became very important to me as I observed who was singled out and how this caused them to be treated by other members of the class .” After graduation, Dagit tutored people who immigrated from Vietnam after the war. She saw how they struggled to learn the language, culture, and to fit in with other kids.

She explained that there is a disproportionate number of people with disabilities who are veterans and who are from minority backgrounds for a variety of reasons , and that along with diversity issues amongst people with disabilities who come from different backgrounds, there are diversity issues around different types of disabilities. “Some disabilities are more stigmatized than others,” she noted.

Her experiences inspired her to become a diversity leader. She traveled to Washington DC and spoke to lawmakers about the importance of passing the ADA and fought against weakening amendments . “During that time I thought about struggles and victories like /Brown vs. the Board of Education/ and the Voting Rights Act, and the importance of civil rights for all people. This experience also caused her to realize the importance of 'reasonable accommodation' for all employees as a foundation for what are now called 'work environment' initiatives."

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About the Author: Simma Lieberman is president of Simma Lieberman Associates, a multicultural organization offering programs focused on diversity training, gender communications, and stress management/life work balance. Her programs are tailored to individuals, businesses, government agencies, educational institutions, and community associations. Simma focuses on building strong relationships within an organization in order to enhance productivity, reduce employee turnover, improve communication, increase morale and decrease burnout. She transforms organizations by working at all levels of a company to help each person play a significant part in achieving success for the organization and meeting their own personal career goals. She has been a popular online chat host and contributor on Oxygen.com and is regularly featured in national magazines and news sources. Simma has also been a national magazine columnist for Restaurant Hospitality. She has done extensive training with the Food Service and Hospitality Industry.

Simma Leiberman