How to Approach Diversity-related Change?

In workplaces, community groups, and other settings, we oftentimes seek to make things better for people from diverse backgrounds.  Sometimes we will benefit directly from those changes and sometimes we’re working with others to attain changes that will benefit society or an organization in general.

As a leader or a change activist, it’s helpful to consider how you and your group will approach diversity.  In a study I conducted, I considered how stakeholders used the following approaches to diversity:

  • Melting Pot Approaches – minimization of differences, assimilation to the dominant culture.  The goal is to avoid discrimination and harassment.
  • Harmonious Diversity – differences understood through the “tossed salad” metaphor of everyone existing together in a creative and productive environment.  Dissonance is minimized.  Goal is to reduce bias and have productivity, approval, and harmony.
  • Identity-Aware Approaches – Members of certain social groups organize around their shared experiences of injustice to seek change. Goal is to create awareness and overcome injustices, enlisting others to both (2) change their attitudes and beliefs and (2) join in seeking changes.
  • Identity-Critique Approaches – Because of the risk of fostering guilt and inaction in the majority population, this approach seeks broad changes that are of interest beyond particular identity groups (e.g., African Americans, gays, Latinos).  Goal is to seek common desires, wants, and dreams among disparate groups.
  • Identity-Influenced Coalitional Changes – Maintains the importance of identity in social organizing, but avoids transferring guilt to the majority.  Majority and minority groups seeks change through broad coalitions.  The goal is to seek coalitional action, with little emphasis on personal development.  In other words, there’s not a major focus on overcoming one’s internal bias and prejudice.

I conducted a case study of a 20-year process to attain domestic partner benefits in a large state university system.  The effort saw mixed success over the years, but had a generally positive outcome.  The group seeking the changes mainly used Identity-aware Approaches and Harmonious Diversity Approaches.

Significant tension existed among the group throughout the effort in determining which approaches to use at various times.  The evidence suggested that this tension was helpful.  Having a variable and flexible set of approaches helped the group to achieve results.

The full-length version of this study was published by the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, a journal of the American Psychological Association.  The PDF is available by clicking here.

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