Building a House for Diversity in St. Louis

This article appeared in the St. Louis American on January 12, 2019.

A few years ago, I read the book, “Building a House for Diversity” by R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., a renowned Harvard professor and diversity scholar. Thomas begins the book with a fable about a giraffe who wants to befriend an elephant.

The giraffe invites the elephant into his house. After some quick carpentry to enlarge the basement door in order to be able to admit the elephant, the giraffe goes off to answer a phone call, asking the elephant, “Please make yourself at home.” But every time the elephant moves, there is a large scrunch or crashing sound. When the giraffe returns, he is amazed at the damage the elephant has done.

There were three takeaways from this story about the interaction between the giraffe (the insider) and the elephant (the outsider). First is the silliness of expecting an elephant to assume the same dimensions as a giraffe.

A second lesson is that organizations should expect a certain amount of tension and complexity when attempting to build a house of diversity. Diverse candidates in our organization are often asked to conform to daily regiments and traditions without consideration that it is their distinct differences that make them so valuable to the organization in the first place. 

The third take away is that organizations ought to measure successes in diversity and inclusiveness not by attempts or the grandness of the plans, but tangible results. Diversity comes to fruition through the willingness and active participation of supervisors, managers, employees at all levels and the willingness of the organization to change itself by being totally inclusive.

This is what we know: Organizations with more women and diverse representation statistically outperform their peers; inclusive teams out perform their peers by 80 percent; gender-diverse organizations are more likely to outperform their peers; and organizations that hire demographically diverse candidates have a greater chance to be around into the future.

The elephant and the giraffe represent the value of equitable collaboration, the combination of individuals who are different in some ways and similar in others. The elephant represents people who are not familiar to us, speak with an accent, have different sexual orientation, individuals who didn’t go to high school in St. Louis.

They are younger or older. Their education credentials and professional experiences are from faraway places. They graduated from college elsewhere. They hold personal and political views that differ from those of their work colleagues. But one thing they bring to the organization is undeniable: a high level of intellectual contribution and the capacity to make meaningful contributions that will ultimately be measured by dollars and cents and increased relevance of the organization.

Harvard Business Review article from summer of 2016 addressed "why diversity programs fail." The findings were that training helps and will continue to be a piece of the quest to ensure diversity. However, to truly break down the unconscious biases, we need to have relationships with people different than ourselves. 

Even more recent research from Price Waterhouse Coopers found that 87 percent of global companies identify diversity and inclusion as a top strategic priority. It also stated that facts and data don't necessarily change minds. The research suggests continual exposure to difference, novel experiences such as cross-cultural or reverse mentoring, and creating safe places to discuss traditionally challenging or polarizing topics are places to start. 

I believe that the biggest threat to any diversity effort is not external but internal. It is the threat that comes from organizations that choose to surround themselves with people who think alike. This results in isolation and insulation. Diversity gives us an opportunity to create an environment that allows all employees to contribute and perform at peak levels of effectiveness.

My challenge to the elephants and the giraffes of St. Louis is we must measure our successes, and sustained results will come only through the willingness and active engagement of supervisors, managers and employees at all levels and – most importantly – the leaders of the organization.

In the recent installment of “Star Wars,” one of my takeaways was the statement from the wife of Yoda’s dad – we need to do and to stop trying.

St. Louis: It’s time to stop trying and focus our collective efforts on doing.

Benjamin Ola Akande, an economist, is senior advisor to the chancellor of Washington University and director of its Africa Initiative.

Moon Goal for Colleges: Retention of Diverse Students

In the July 31 edition of Diverse Magazine, Benjamin Ola. Akande, Ph.D., dean of the Walker School of Business & Technology and chief partnership officer at Webster University, offers his views on how colleges can retain diverse students in the article, “Moon Goal for Colleges: Retention of Diverse Students.”  In addition to challenging institutions to create a moon goal which he describes as an objective an institution is willing to pursue, unwilling to postpone and one it intends to win, his op-ed piece discusses some of the strategies Webster University has implemented to ensure students from diverse backgrounds achieve their higher education aspirations.

“I believe the colleges that will thrive in the coming years will be those who excel at preparing people of diverse backgrounds for successful careers and who have carefully cultivated a competitive academic advantage that distinguishes them from their competitors. Adopting such a strategy enables universities to be creative in developing academic programs that are relevant to the needs of students and the marketplace.”

Read the full article...


Date: July 4, 2000 Publication: ST. Louis Post-Dispatch
Section: Editorial
Edition: Five Star Lift
Page: B7

IN my 20 years in America, I have traveled all over this great nation in search of the American experience, looking to understand what makes this country great. My American journey, which has taken me to 43 states, has made me a better person, more understanding, more appreciative of people and their beliefs. But my 20-year odyssey has also exposed me to many things that I didn't expect to find in America.

America is a nation of immigrants, where many people are trying to preserve their origins, to prevent becoming an anonymous ingredient in a great "melting pot." I see America as a tossed salad with different components and distinctions. The people and ideas make for a culturally, ethnically diverse salad rich in possibilities and full of promises. Wh at's missing is the best kind of homemade salad dressing: It's called love.

In America, I found that people of different races and ethnic backgrounds are often perceived through a clouded prism of traditional and stereotypical designations, which are based solely on perceptions. In America, minorities are often perceived as lazy, uneducated, dysfunctional drug addicts, criminals and welfare beneficiaries. I am troubled that Americans still hold on to these perceptions. My prayer is that sooner rather than later, we will come to realize the vanity of false distinctionsbased solely on skin color. The truth is that we are all God's children.

In my American journey, I met strangers who took me in and treated me like family. I found love compassion and acceptance in so many faces, in so many places. I discovered the true meaning of family in a small place with a big heart. In Plainview, Texas, I found the power of a small community and the warmth and concern for one another that radiates in this flat, windblown, treeless terrain of West Texas.

At the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Fla., visitors witness the conception of a dream, its lofty delivery, from the simple, but delicate, physics of a bird in flight to the extra-terrestrial marvel of Neil Arm strong, who took one small step for himself and a giant step for mankind. This is the best of America.

I wonder why a nation blessed with so many scientific achievements is unable to find a way to live in peace and harmony. And so I looked at the American Constitution and read some of the memorable thoughts on the ideals of freedom and equality, and I compared all these great writings with current political rhetoric. I must ask how really free and equal are those Americans who spend their days in food lines and their nights alone in chilly parks? I wonder how the richest, most powerful nationinthe world could afford to have so much misery around without feeling that something is wrong.

I am worried that America has found itself in the middle of a crossfire where hate is growing faster than love and the victims are people like you and me, innocent bystanders caught in a societal drive-by shooting. I am afraid that if America does not find a way to bring its people together, nothing will stop us from growing apart. Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., captured the challenges that lay ahead for this nation when he said, "America needs to be a place where all of us feel a part of theAmerican dream. But it will not happen by dividing us into racial groups. It will no t happen by trying to turn the rich against the poor. It will not happen by asking Americans to accept what is immoral and wrong in the name of tolerance. America must find a way to put our differences aside. I am resolute that the future of America will be good if we all come to a realization that we can do more together than we can ever do apart."

THE visitor in me saw the awesome and overwhelming beauty and power of this great nation; but the student in me saw a nation of contradictions. They say this is God's own country, yet, prayers in public schools and in most public events are banned. This nation is searching for its true meaning, struggling with the disease of historical amnesia. America cannot afford to forget its Christian roots and its biblical foundation.

The challenge for all Americans is to come to grips with the fact that it's not so much where we are that matters, but in what direction we are going. This nation needs an army of believers, dedicated to ensuring that our future remains in good hands.

America, please don't allow the rain of discontent to wash your hopes and dreams away. America don't allow the unexpected showers of life to rain on your spirit of enthusiasm. There is nothing better. There is no place greater than America.