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Observations and lessons learned about diversity

Duane M. Turner
Human Resources Officer
Department of Public Works and Transportation
Prince George's County, Maryland

The vision of a workforce comprised of individuals reflecting all of the possible human variances working in a harmonious, productive environment is by no means new. This notion first gained national prominence in the early sixties when the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. revealed this "innervision" in his famous "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in our nation's Capitol on a sultry August day in 1963. Since that momentous occasion, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the companion legislation that followed took root and shaped our society's early consciousness about diversity.

Though re-defined and temporarily derailed by landmark court cases of the decades that followed, the concept of diversity has re-emerged and has gained new momentum in recent years. The dramatic demographic changes in the workforce which have taken place since those early years, have again turned our attention to the importance of diversity and the benefits that can be derived when it is embraced and cultivated within organizations. Those keen enough to recognize the power of this burgeoning phenomenon are aptly positioned to harness the "synergy" which exudes from a heterogeneous workforce that recognizes and applauds human differences.

The vision of diversity can only become fully realized when there are individuals who are properly motivated and prepared to accept the challenge of influencing others to share their vision and to transform that vision into a model which has practical application. Such a group is the Diversity Committee. In the early years, the committee, then known as the Council of Equal Opportunity, had as its primary focus the advocacy of women and minorities. As time progressed, the committee expanded its focus to include the myriad of unique attributes which characterize the modern workforce. Since its inception, the committee has convened from various parts of the country through the aid of modern teleconferencing technology to dialogue, share ideas and strategies toward furthering the ideals of diversity throughout the Association, its chapters and the community at large. At this point in its development, past and present committee members share their perspectives regarding where the committee has been and what lies ahead in the arena of diversity.

Mr. Herb Fain, a former committee chairperson, has been involved in the diversity movement since the late 1970s. He credits the keen foresight and tremendous support of the Association Board and staff as a major contributing factor to the success of the committee over the years. Herb believes that the fundamental mission of the committee then and now has been to equip public works employees with the tools and knowledge to address the human challenges which are a natural outgrowth of the changing workforce.

Mr. Steve Masters, also a past chairperson, became initially involved in diversity at the organizational level approximately 15 years ago. He was instrumental in establishing a diversity committee within his department. His focus was not only to ensure compliance with EEO laws, but also to cultivate a positive, supportive work environment for all people. As Steve furthered his involvement, he associated himself with like-minded individuals outside of his organization. He became impressed with their commitment to diversity which later prompted him to pursue his interests at the national level. Steve believes that it is important to find out what others are doing in the field of diversity. Networking in this manner often provides new ideas and can serve as a source of encouragement.

Ms. Jennifer Barlas recalls her early involvement in the committee on which she served first as a member and more recently as chairperson. Jennifer has seen the committee become increasingly more relevant and progressive in many areas. The cultivation of diversity liaisons and publishing of diversity-related materials in her view have been instrumental in heightening awareness and planting the seeds of diversity. Recognition of the many accomplishments and initiatives of the committee particularly at the national level has also been rewarding.

Past and current committee chairperson Ms. Ann Burnett, feels that our society has come a long way since the civil rights era, but believes that we still have quite a way to go. She recalls the early 1990s when the committee had an affirmative action orientation, primarily focused upon the advocacy of women and minorities, and has seen it evolve to a more inclusive approach. As current chairperson, Ann will continue to lead the committee to build upon the successes of the past while continuing to actively advocate diversity at the local and national level. She believes that a greater effort should be made to include younger Association members in this process.

It is evident from the reflections of these past and present committee members that the diversity movement, both in and outside of the Association, continues to evolve and flourish. As it does, we will continue to see the work of this committee take on new directions and dimensions as time progresses. This dynamic quality, as well as the efforts of the individuals who comprise the committee currently and in the future, is undoubtedly the impetus that will continue to keep it vibrant and relevant in the years ahead. For additional information about the Diversity Committee or to find out how you can make diversity work for you in your local chapter or organization, please contact Ann Burnett, Diversity Committee Chairperson, at (619) 640-4444.