Maria Dixon-Hall: A new model to move beyond diversity

Professor Maria Dixon-Hall, senior adviser to the provost for campus cultural intelligence initiatives, wrote an opinion about traditional diversity and inclusion training.

By Maria Dixon-Hall 

There comes a time when you have to admit something isn’t working. Whether it is the Wishbone offense or duct taping that radiator hose for the 15th time, sometimes we find it difficult to just admit we need to start over.

In 2015, while sitting with young men of SAE at the University of Oklahoma just days after they had been removed from campus, I began to wonder about the effectiveness of our overall approach to issues of human difference. Our time together, a middle-aged black professor and a group of 18- to 22-year-old white men forged bonds that day that changed not only my life but my beliefs about diversity.

Traditional diversity and inclusion training often assumes that everybody in the workshop is excited to learn how to appreciate their diverse colleagues. Spend a few hours learning about stale stereotypes and affixing blame rather than learning how to work and communicate effectively with people from diverse contexts, and you can see why many traditional D&I training participants are more willing to sign up for a root canal than another hour of diversity training.

This is not to say that these models have not pushed the needle at all. Indeed, they are successful in setting institutional expectations and consequences for workplace and organizational behavior in diverse settings. But after 32 years of diversity and inclusion training, are we any better equipped to engage difference authentically? Does not the staggering level of segregation in our schools, churches, neighborhoods, and personal lives reveal that diversity training may have changed policies but has had little measurable progress in changing hearts and minds?

When we travel abroad, we work hard to learn the language of the people, whether its French, Spanish or Urdu. Our goal is to ensure that while we travel we are respectful to our hosts, able to move around easily, and accomplish our goals with no offense. If we are conducting important business we find it useful to understand the social norms, the taboos, and the practices that frame daily life in our host country to increase our chances of successful outcomes. If this is a successful formula for bridging cultural differences our outside of the United States, why not give it a try in our backyard?

Known as “cultural intelligence,” this concept advances the idea that all of us have a cultural language that impacts the way we interact with the world. In addition to race, we speak a unique dialect that includes our generational, geographical, religious, gender, sexual and political identity. By learning the languages of the people around us, we are not only more culturally intelligent, we are better able to become more effective in working with others.

The Cultural Intelligence Initiative (CIQ@SMU) at Southern Methodist University represents this new approach to traditional diversity training. We realized that helping our university appreciate diversity became less important than equipping all SMU Mustangs with the skills and knowledge to achieve their tasks regardless who sits across from them.

Beginning with the “languages” of race and ethnicity, teams of faculty, staff and students developed seminars that provide insights on building better relationships with their cultural identity. From how to manage conflict to understanding social cues and rituals, African American, Hispanic, Asian and Middle Eastern, and white Mustangs worked to create 90-minute “tourist” guide sessions for their colleagues. More than obtaining knowledge, these workshops are designed to give practical insights that will increase effective communication and collaboration between all Mustangs.

In addition to our seminars, we are infusing our university processes with the practice and philosophy of cultural intelligence. CIQ@SMU will touch every part of a Mustang’s life from the day they step on campus as a member of the faculty, staff or student body. Over time we believe we will see a change in the way we teach, learn, recruit, lead, advise, rush, play and live. If our strategic plan is accurate, by 2025, CIQ@SMU will be the cultural norm at Southern Methodist University, ensuring that every graduate will be able to work, lead and contribute effectively whether they are in Detroit or Dubai.

Will SMU’s attempts to move beyond diversity be successful? Well, if author Leo Buscaglilia is right and change is the beginning of true education then I believe SMU is already successful. We are already seeing a change in how Greek leaders view potential candidates for recruitment; how faculty members mentor one another and our students; as well as how we cultivate new leaders. While these results are notable, I believe our President R. Gerald Turner stated our criteria for true success for CIQ@SMU best: CIQ@SMU’s success will not be measured by traditional standards. Our success will be measured in the transformation of the daily lives of the people who are and aspire to become members of the Mustang family.


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