Common Ground

Participants say Diversity Awareness Workshops are fostering communication and understanding

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

They weren't sure what to expect at first and, understandably, they were a little nervous.

But employees Gregory Lennon, Christopher McCormack and Nampeera Lugira say they found the University's Diversity Awareness program an enjoyable and enlightening experience. The workshops, offered to staff through the Human Resources Department, began last spring as part of a University-wide commitment to exploring diversity and are being offered again this fall.

Participants say the small group discussions can offer a valuable perspective on the complex, sensitive issues surrounding race and ethnicity. Those who attend shouldn't come to find easy answers, they say, but to discover something about the people who make up the University community.


Diversity Awareness Workshop participants include, from left: Nampeera Lugira, an admission assistant; Gregory Lennon, an Athletic Association office manager; Patricia Pflaumer, administrative secretary in Geology and Geophysics; and Assistant Risk Manager Christopher McCormack. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"You learn that at some point, anyone can be on one side of the fence from everybody else," said Lugira, an admission assistant who is one of 15 employees training to lead future workshops. "But when you look harder, you find we are not really that different."

"Diversity does not mean that we're color blind," said McCormack, an assistant risk manager and another leader-in-training. "It is about recognizing our differences and realizing that they do not have to be obstacles to understanding one another and forming a community. The workshops are a safe place to sit down and talk about these issues."

"We're an institution of higher education and we should aspire to setting trends," said Lennon, an Athletic Association office manager. "This is an opportunity to break new ground in ways that go beyond the classroom or laboratory."

Administrators agree, citing the open letter written earlier this year by University President William P. Leahy, SJ, urging racial harmony and understanding on campus as integral to creating a "just community" at Boston College.

Accordingly, the University's new employee orientation program contains a major diversity theme, as does the performance management program. The initiative also included the Diversity Awareness workshops, and approximately 50 employees took part in the first series. Fr. Leahy and University vice presidents also participated in a diversity awareness training program. By the end of this year, some 450 employees will have been involved in a Human Resources-sponsored diversity activity.

"It's vital for everyone to know that this is an institutional commitment," said Vice President for Human Resources Leo V. Sullivan. "We're not just preaching to the converted. We are making a comprehensive effort to reach out to everyone in the BC community, whether they are administrators, managers or staff."

"Diversity awareness relates very much to Boston College's Ignatian and Catholic heritage," said Human Resources Employee Development Director Bernard O'Kane, who is helping administer the program. "But it also makes good sense. Any time that co-workers have an opportunity to get to know each other more fully, there is a much greater likelihood this will have a positive impact on their work."

While intrigued by the workshop's premise, some participants say they had wondered if it would truly address racial and ethnic diversity in a meaningful way. But they found its simple format fostered spirited exchanges. Participants described their family and social backgrounds, using a selection of suggested words and phrases such as "New Englander" or "blue-collar" to provide a useful frame of reference.

"It's always hard to let yourself open up, to share with people you don't know," said Patricia Pflaumer, administrative secretary for the Geology and Geophysics Department. "But once we started, we could all see some kind of commonalty. It was a good basis on which to begin and it helped lead us to further discussion."

Lugira, a 1996 alumnus, felt the workshop was beneficial in many ways. Her experiences as a person of color in a predominantly white campus were sometimes difficult, she said, and she had been hesitant to discuss them with non-acquaintances.

"I felt some discomfort in bringing up these experiences," Lugira said. "But it turned out to be a healthy thing to do, to start to come to terms with them."

"Start" is a key word in describing the workshops, participants say: They are not an end in themselves, but the means to a longer process.

"You can't solve racism, sexism, ageism or any '-ism' in one day, but that's not the point here," McCormack said. "You have to start with some common ground, just be able to talk with one another."

"One obvious question the workshops raise is, 'What happens next?'" O'Kane said. "The challenge is to go back to your office or department and work with the understanding that cultural diversity can make a difference in how we work. We hope participants will take some personal responsibility to be as open and honest as possible."

After today, the remaining workshops will take place Nov. 13, Dec. 9 and Dec. 18, all from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, contact Carole DiFabio at difabio@bc.edu, or Sidney Holloway at sidney.holloway@bc.edu.

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