Author: Jane Rolander, LCSW, URMND Contributor
Diversity is something that I’ve always embraced and always been an important part of my life. I’m a military kid and the military is diverse. It has to be in order to accomplish the mission and survive what can (at times) be a stressful lifestyle.
I also spent most of my childhood in the Northern Virginia, DMV area which is also incredibly diverse. Yes, I lived in a predominantly white, upper class neighborhood. The schools I went to were not predominantly white. My high school in particular, was very diverse. We had students from everywhere, of all races, religions, and socioeconomic background.
I spent my formative years, learning how to relate to people who were different from me, learning how to live in harmony. My experiences continued in college when I went to Virginia Commonwealth University, which is arguably one of the most diverse universities in the state. Again, living in harmony with people who look differently, think differently, and do things differently from myself.
After school, I worked in an area that was not very diverse. Almost all the clients were white. Almost all the staff were white. I could count the number of black staff members on one hand, and we only had two people who were Hispanic. All of the higher-ups and supervisors were white. It was bizarre, but I accepted it and kept doing the work. I currently work in a very diverse work environment, again with a variety of cultural backgrounds at all levels of management. It’s great.
Diversity in the workplace, especially in human services, is very important. It does make a difference. Here’s why:
- The staff reflect the client population- When a workplace is diverse, it often reflects the client population. This is important. When trying to create a relationship with a client, we often use a technique called “mirroring.” That is, we reflect back a client’s body language, tone of voice, etc. When the staff reflect the client population, it makes the services more accessible, see my bullet point below about services being less intimidating.
- Open conversations and perspectives in staff meetings- when you have a diverse workforce, you have diverse perspectives. This is key to problem solving. People with different cultural backgrounds view the world differently. During staff meetings, when there is mutual respect between coworkers, there is more open conversations and problem solving that include a wide variety of perspectives in order to solve a common problem.
- We educate each other and are always learning and growing- as humans, we are always learning and growing. When a workplace is diverse, we learn many things that help us serve clients better. Perhaps we learn about cultural norms that are different from ours. Perhaps we learn from someone you is older and has more experience in the field. Perhaps we learn about a new technique or change in the field from someone who is younger and fresh out of school. Perhaps we learn to be more conscious in the language we choose to use or shift our previous perceptions about a culture entirely. My point is we are constantly learning and growing, and if everyone is the same, we will continue to be stuck with the same biases that we came in with, which is harmful to clients and the field.
- Facilitates cultural competency- when you work with people who are from different backgrounds, you become more culturally competent just by your day to day interactions. This facilitates mutual respect and understanding between staff, and it trickles down to the clients. Something you may have learned from your coworker about a cultural background will often help you with a client.
- Makes it less intimidating for people to come in- if you’re seeking mental health services, the number one fear is that someone won’t understand, that you will be judged. When you step into a work environment that is clearly diverse in its staff, it sets the tone that your chances of being accepted are higher. If there are people there from your cultural background, this usually assuages some anxiety that you won’t be understood. It removes the “us vs them” mentality and positions of power that are typically held by both services providers and clients and creates a “we.”
Of course, one has to be open to examine yourself and learn from others who are different from you. You have to be willing to maintain a level of respect with people you might not agree with. However, having a diverse workplace and providing the opportunities for this to happen is a good place to start. It is important. People notice, and the clients benefit.