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Diversity At Work.

With the workplace becoming a mini United Nations, students must develop diplomatic skills and an appreciation of differences.

Although the forms haven't been tallied yet, the 2000 U.S. Census will undoubtedly prove how multicultural the country has become in the last two decades. People from countries around the globe have emigrated to the United States in search of peace and economic prosperity, transforming the population in the process.

Between 1980 and 1998, for example, the number of Hispanics in the United States doubled, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Hispanics, who represented 11.3 percent of the population in 1998, are expected to become the largest minority group by 2005. Overall, the Census Bureau projects that racial and ethnic minorities will soon constitute nearly one-half of all Americans.

These demographic trends are shaping every aspect of society, including the workplace. "America is no longer what it was 15 or 20 years ago," observes Nelda A. Billups, who teaches computer applications at Aiken High School in Cincinnati and also chairs the Association for Career and Technical Education's Diversity Action Committee. "Because of a huge influx of different types of peoples, cultures and languages, our students will have to work with a more diverse population--with people our students' parents never dreamed of working with."

Those co-workers may even live in other countries, given the international scope of many organizations today. "We're a global economy now, and we can't assume students are simply going to work right in their own backyard," Billups notes.

Business issues

Diversity within the workplace goes beyond racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 required employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities, clearing the way for the employment of more people with physical or mental impairments. Add to that the number of people who are not retiring at 65--in part because of the strong economy and labor shortages--and those who change careers in their 30s and 40s, and it's easy to imagine today's students entering tomorrow's workforce to work side by side with (and perhaps supervise) men and women of all ages, physical abilities and life experiences.

That's not necessarily easy. "When someone is different, people don't always know what to do. Those differences create some uncertainty--`Am I saying the right thing?' If you haven't been exposed to differences, you question your approach and whether it's appropriate or not," says Charles Young. He's managing director of The Kaleidoscope Group, a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in diversity issues.

Businesses have an economic interest in helping everyone get along; they want to attract and retain the best and the brightest talent to maintain a competitive edge. What's more, diversity of thought and experience is a catalyst for creativity--a characteristic that can make or break a business.

"Diversity isn't just important in terms of getting along with people. It's critical to innovation," believes John Radford, an organizational psychologist and consultant in North Vancouver, British Columbia, and a co-author of Self-Wealth: Creating Prosperity, Serenity and Balance in Your Life. "Until fairly recently, companies could be innovative with a few clever thinkers. That has radically shifted. Every person, from the president on down, has to be innovative for an organization to succeed."

Because of organizational flattening in the 1980s and 1990s that removed layers of management, much of the innovation and problem solving in the workplace is being handled by teams. Again, diversity is part of the picture. Team members typically bring different backgrounds, interests, skills and experiences to a project.

"That requires an ability to get along with people," says Patricia Kapper, vice president of education and placement for the Career Education Corporation, a company based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., that owns 25 career schools around the country. "I've always told students, `You may not always like everybody you work with, but you still have to learn how to work with them and recognize that everybody brings a special skill and talent to the table.'"

Preparing tomorrow's workers

Clearly, the ability to acknowledge and appreciate people's differences will be essential for students entering the job market for the foreseeable future. How can they develop these skills?

It all starts with self-value, says Radford. "People who have a strong self-concept tend not to put others down. They see beyond issues like race, gender and language to value the difference--because with it comes a different view of the world."

The Kaleidoscope Group is developing a model high school curriculum that takes students through several steps aimed at developing self-awareness. "Students have to understand how they see the world and what cultural misperceptions or biases may have been created from that world view," Young explains.

Here are some steps you can take to help prepare students for the workplace and to foster an inclusive environment:

Incorporate diversity into the curriculum. Look for ways to expose students to different people and cultures within the context of the curriculum. For instance, suggests Kapper, have culinary students participate in an ethnic food fair. "In fashion design classes, students can do dress from various cultural backgrounds," she says. "It works with music, too. You can then celebrate as well as demonstrate those differences."

If your school or the surrounding community is homogeneous, don't overlook the Internet as a means of opening students' eyes to the wider world through research or correspondence. "Communities on the [Internet] are great opportunities for finding out more about people, especially if the interaction takes place around a project or work activity," says Radford.

Emphasize the importance of communication. Junior Achievement of New York recently convened a focus group of human resource professionals and asked them to identify the essential skills for the workforce of the 21st century. The No. 1 skill? The ability to communicate appropriately and effectively.

"All [human resource professionals] are concerned that communication and interpersonal skills are diminishing," says Doug Schallau, president of Junior Achievement of New York. "Particularly those who hire people out of high school said they have to spend a lot of time teaching employees how to behave and act in the workplace."

Cross-cultural communication--whether with co-workers, clients or customers--poses its own challenges. Nonverbal communication may be more important than what's said, for instance. "It may be impolite in some cultures to look one another in the eye, whereas in America you're considered dishonest if you don't," Billups notes. "Or it may be impolite to touch someone who is not in the family, even if it's just to put change in their hand."

To prepare students for such scenarios, Billups occasionally invites speakers from a local consulting firm to talk about differences in cultures and doing business with people from other countries. She also advocates bringing back former students as guest speakers, specifically to discuss the different cultural situations they've found themselves in.

Assign team-based projects.

"Working together as a team gets students used to the idea that this is how business does it," says former instructor Diana Fell. "As the teacher, you would say, `This is what we want to achieve' but not give them all the steps to get there. They have to figure it out themselves."

You also can use teams to represent cultural perspectives, adds Karen J. Stewart, the Career Education Corporation's curriculum manager. "Say you're studying the American Revolution. One team might look at it from the angle of an English immigrant, another from the African-American perspective and another from the American Indian's viewpoint."

Accustomed to being assessed and rewarded for individual performance, students may balk at team-based assignments or call them unfair. But like it or not, Fell says, that's how the real world operates.

Encourage workplace experiences.

"Get the kids into the workplace to actually observe people working together--whether it's a field trip, a shadow day, an internship or a summer job," Schallau advises. He notes that more organizations are inviting teachers into the workplace as well, enabling them to gain firsthand experience that can be shared with students.

When students return to the classroom, give them opportunities to discuss their observations: What did they like or dislike about a business?

"Get those who have been out in the workplace to talk about what they experienced, what their apprehensions are--it needs to be processed," says Fran Katzanek, who spent 15 years at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., as director of career services and is the author of Reality 101: Practical Advice on Entering and Succeeding in the Real World. "Too often, students write a paper and get credit for an internship, but only the instructor is aware of what they experienced."

Be a role model. "Instructors who work with other instructors and other departments teach by example," notes Stewart. In other words, show your students how to respect and work with different people by doing so yourself. Welcome students who may speak English as a second language. Attend cultural celebrations in the community. Talk about your experiences meeting, traveling or working with people with disabilities.

"Step out of your comfort zone--do something that makes you feel uncomfortable," Radford recommends. "You either have to fight the difference or learn to value it. And when you do value it, the students will naturally follow."

RELATED ARTICLE: The Power of Stories

"New Technologies and a more diverse student population are advantages, not problems. Schools can prosper from the rich diversity of their students and the new visions that the future provides," writes Tonya Huber-Bowen in Teaching in the Diverse Classroom: Learner-Centered Activities That Work. Her book includes 29 "quality learning experiences" for grades K-12, all aimed at enriching students' understanding and acceptance of diversity.

One experience, for instance,focuses on how stories communicate information about lives, cultures and value systems. Huber-Bowen recommends several ways to use storytelling to promote tolerance and understanding:

* Invite a storyteller into the classroom to share folk tales from different cultures.

* Have students pair off and take turns telling of a unique experience they've had--one that reflects their racial or ethnic background. The listener takes notes and then checks for comprehension by repeating the story to the student telling it.

* Ask students to present their stories to the class, using pictures, music, dance, costumes or other visual aids if they'd like. A question-and-answer period should follow each presentation.

* After presenting their stories to the class, students can make written journal entries about what they've learned about their classmates, other cultures and themselves.

Teaching in the Diverse Classroom is available from the association for Career and Technical Education. Call product sales at 800-826-9972.

Sandra R. Sabo is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Association for Career and Technical Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Sabo, Sandra R.
Publication:Techniques
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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