What Real Diversity Looks Like

Some of the most rewarding work I do is with my dear friends and colleagues Roberto Chene and Nadine Tafoya. Together we are a multicultural team ready to spring into action to rescue poor White organizations struggling with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Imagine superheroes, at a moment’s notice, tackling the deepest historical trauma, the most entrenched implicit bias, cross-cultural miscommunication of epic proportions, all in a single workshop! A ridiculous image, but on a good day it can feel like that.

An Hispano and a native New Mexican, Roberto is a consultant and trainer specializing in helping non-profits, agencies, and others who are struggling to create and sustain intercultural workplaces. He is a genius at delivering difficult messages about systemic racism, internalized oppression, and all the other loaded themes at the core of so much conflict and angst today. Nadine is a member of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in southern New Mexico and lives at Santa Clara Pueblo, her husband’s pueblo north of Santa Fe. She is a health consultant working with federal and state agencies, universities, and local groups to improve behavioral health service delivery to Native communities.  This means constant attention to the dynamics between the powerful and those in need. She walks this tightrope with skill, diplomacy and fearless honesty.  

Grandpa Roberto

 I am so proud to partner with these two superheroes to consult and offer workshops on building successful intercultural workplaces. I can offer a White perspective, often an uncomfortable place for me to be. Each of us brings history to the team – personal and cultural – and each of us must be honest with ourselves and others about these histories and how they impact us. Nadine, Roberto and I have worked together for decades and have helped each other build skills and gain insights that make us able – even eager — to do this work that might seem like torture for many. For us, our mutual appreciation and respect, as well as the deep affection we hold for each other, carries us through.

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Look at the Horizon

I was confiding in my 14 year-old grandson recently about my fear of snakes. He lives far away and we were on zoom. I told him that during the summer and early fall snakes are slithering through the tall grass, lounging on warm rocks, and generally waiting to terrify me. This means that my usual refreshing, invigorating walks become terrifying treks. With my eyes riveted on the ground in front of me, I told him, I miss the gorgeous views, mountains in the distance, a sky full of huge cloud pillows, the bright yellow chamisa bushes ahead, the ravens wheeling above me. There were alternative routes, I explained, on dusty dirt roads, but this was my favorite one and I hated to give it up, but those snakes…

Chamisa and Apache Plume, on my walk this morning…

He agreed this was a sad state of affairs, which was pretty generous for a young teen in the throes of adolescence. And he had some advice: “Just go on the walk, the one you like, through the grass, with the views and the ravens and everything, but don’t look down. Keep your eyes on the horizon and just keep walking. If you’re not looking for them all the time, you won’t think about them, and you can enjoy yourself.”

I pointed out that I imagined I would worry about stepping on one, and that if I did I would surely have a heart attack and die and the snake would bite me for good measure and…. but he had returned to his digital device.

…in the arroyo near our house…

It’s an interesting and tempting recipe for living, and maybe one I should cook up now and then. Those things that haunt me, scare me, anger or sadden me, those things I have zero control over – why not just look elsewhere? Why not find a more pleasing, nourishing view? If I take my eyes off the path, littered with domestic chaos and global crisis, if I breathe deep and look out at the horizon, maybe all that distress won’t be there.

… a Datura, or Moonflower…

Of course I know better, and so does my grandson. We both know the snake may actually be basking across the sunny path, and that I may even step on it and stumble. We both know that the sadness and suffering are still there in the world, and that I may open the morning paper and be confronted with another horror, maybe this time it’s people clinging to a jetliner in Afghanistan. But he knows a balance is what his grandma needs. He knows she will still worry about the snake, but if she can choose, even for a few steps, to take in a different view, she will be happier and healthier.

He’s a smart boy.

…and I crossed paths with this migrating Tarantula, of whom I have no fear. I was enjoying the horizon — and the sandy arroyo floor. You can do both!!

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Just Tell the Truth

“Just tell us the truth.” He was a 16-year-old high school student, and he was talking to the National Park Service. The Park Service had invited 30 students from different parts of the country to reflect via zoom on the Manhattan Project. What did this generation know about the Manhattan Project? Was it relevant to their lives today? What information did they need about this project that changed the world?  

Birth of the Nuclear Age

The agency was seeking guidance on how to tell the story of the Manhattan Project at the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park, located in three separate locations:  Los Alamos, NM, Hanford, WA, and Oak Ridge, TN. These three sites were critical in the development of the first atomic bomb and the birth of the nuclear age. Each played a role in research, processing materials and building the weapons.

at the entrance to Los Alamos, New Mexico

Secrecy had shrouded the project in order to keep enemies in the dark and be able to deliver the ultimate weapon without warning. The secrecy continued after the war to some extent; the true impacts of the research, development, testing and detonation of the bomb were slow to come to light. Many feel those impacts are still not understood and respected. My job as facilitator was to help those voices be heard through a series of zoom sessions with Park Service leadership. One of those sessions focused on the next generation, since they are the ones who will carry this significant moment in history into the future.

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Expanding the Tent

How big is your tent? Who and how many can fit under it?  And how does someone qualify to be one of those lucky ones?

My rural neighborhood outside Santa Fe, for instance, is small, maybe 20 houses. I say “maybe” because our tent size is a bit fluid.  We draw artificial boundaries based on tradition; one street over is too far, but another may be included that is no nearer. We include those who have moved away and we were so sorry to see them go that we still invite them to the annual Pie Bake, even if they are now in Florida. Who gets to be under our tent? Those with whom we share common ground – physically, but not always in other senses. And, those who are familiar, comfortable, reliable, although a newcomer may not have started out that way.

I’ve been thinking about “professional tents” lately. I have spent decades safely under the “mediation/facilitation tent.” This has given me the connections and status that enable me to make a living doing what I love. Those of us under the tent are on federal rosters of providers invited to bid on federal contracts. We speak at conferences, write articles, hobnob with leaders in the field, all of which increases our chances of landing the next job. It is a great club to be part of – for pleasure and profit.

But exactly what are the boundaries of the tent and do we need to do a little remodeling to expand our size?  

My eyes were opened recently thanks to a project with Johns Hopkins University (JHU). The project included a series of zoom meetings with seven communities around the country representing different demographics – Latinx, Native American and African American – to learn how these groups make decisions about whether or not to take a vaccine. I was part of a team of experienced facilitators – all securely under the tent — ready to do the job, but it was clear to us that dropping into these communities, with no connection and no credibility, was not the way to go. We worked with the client to identify and hire local community members to fill the role. The group of seven recruits included a pastor, a community health worker, a clinical psychologist, a professor, a city administrator, and others. None was a trained facilitator.

My role shifted to that of coach and back-up for these “non-facilitators,” who would be facilitating their community conversations. I held three zoom calls where the facilitators could get some help from us established facilitators. The joke was on us; they needed none of that. They shared stories from their meetings and exchanged tips about how to handle certain situations. Whatever I offered was outweighed by what I received in new insights and inspiration. Although none was a facilitator in the professional sense, they facilitated beautifully, each in their own way, bringing their own identity and experience to the role. The community members felt they were in good and caring hands and engaged honestly, openly and with a vulnerability that would not have happened with an outside facilitator.

Expanding the tent for new members

Would it be so hard to expand our tent and explicitly include these non-facilitators who nonetheless facilitated skillfully in our (often self-promoting) club ? It would be a win-win for the client who would get more robust and authentic engagement and a more useful product, for the participants who could relate to that person in the front of the room/screen, and for the profession which would at last begin to reflect the diversity of those we are working with.

So what are the barriers to expanding the tent to include these talented, unrecognized practitioners? Unlike lawyers, doctors and others there are no degrees or exams required to call yourself a mediator or facilitator. A few states have certification programs for mediators, but almost all of us under the tent are not carrying around a license to practice. So it is not that lack of certification that is keeping them out. I think it is more insidious. As with any club, or neighborhood, there is an expectation that those who join will fit in. This may mean having certain degrees and /or impressive experience in the field. It also may mean that the new member under the tent will relate easily to the existing members. There will be a familiarity, a comfort level; the new member will not pose a challenge, will not rock the boat, but will embrace the status quo whatever it might be.

This is not a sign of good health for the profession. It is increasingly clear to me that there is bias built into the system. Those from different backgrounds, who look or sound different, whose skills manifest differently, may not pass that comfort and familiarity test and may not be invited into the professional tent. They will not have access to the status and connections, and hence the jobs and contracts, that come with being under that tent. The diversity, the insights, the skills that those local facilitators brought to the JHU project are exactly what we need inside our professional tent. Of course, not everyone is lining up to get into the tent, but for those who are, we should throw open the flap and welcome them in.

Expanding our tents to embrace the other is the right thing to do for so many reasons –a stronger group, a sustainable future, and a more inclusive and just way of doing business.

There’s always a way to make room for more

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Now I Know

When I lived in Chinle, Arizona, heart of Navajo country in the 1970s, I struggled with my role as a young, idealistic, White woman. I arrived with so much good intention and so much ignorance, in equal amounts. I have always felt that those seven years were the most significant in my life. Navajos taught me to be patient, to listen and learn, and to drop all assumptions and expectations about what was needed and what I had to offer.

And the learning is not over. The recent revelations of the horrific treatment of Native children in boarding schools in both Canada and the US hit me hard. While in Chinle, I was a teacher’s aide for a Headstart class. Those little ones were 3-5 years old, many living in hogans with no utilities, most speaking no English. Unsure what it meant to be going to “school,” they were wide-eyed and cautious in the classroom. Outdoors on the playground, they came to life, rambunctious and free. After graduating from Headstart (in caps and gowns) they went on to the local public elementary school, or to the local boarding school, depending on the preference of their parents and the distance from the bus route.

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Life is a Trickster

We all have vaccine stories. Here is how it came to pass that I drove two and a half hours to Colorado for mine and the surprise that awaited me on my return.

Roberto had received his first vaccine from the VA in February, and I was waiting for mine. It turned out not to be a very happy wait. I fell into the desperation, near panic, that seemed to be gripping the country. I saw on the nightly news coverage of people lining up, on their feet or in their cars, at 4:00 in the morning and waiting hours and hours to get a vaccine and maybe going home empty handed, or shot-in-the-arm-less, I should say.

Here in New Mexico there were no mass vaccination sites where if you could get up early enough you could get vaccinated. The rollout was funneled through the state department of health and once you registered on the site with your birthday, occupation and underlying conditions you waited to get lucky. Every week winners were selected randomly and offered a time and place to get the shot. Well, I thought, I am in the 1b group, currently eligible, so my turn will come soon. That Buddhist moment didn’t last. My email, voice mail, and texts were full of the latest rumors and tips about how to get it without waiting. My friends were succeeding. Some drove to Amarillo, Texas, only four and a half hours away (!) and came back proudly sporting the band aid. Others found a pharmacy giving vaccines every Saturday, but when I tried to sign up they were full, then they were closed. I followed every lead straight to a dead end. I was almost the only person I knew in my age group without at least a first shot.  

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Minari Grows in Arkansas

Minari, a traditional Korean vegetable, plays a starring role in the movie.

I saw the film Minari the other night and was moved for many reasons. It’s a beautifully told story, but one aspect of it hit me particularly hard.

The set up of the film is this: an immigrant Korean family of four begins a new life raising Korean vegetables on their own piece of rich, brown farmland in Arkansas. What’s your first thought? Mine was: “Wow, this is not going to go well. Those rural Arkansas folks are going to make their lives miserable. The poor struggling immigrants may survive or they may not but this will be a movie about racism and the deep divides in America today. How could it be anything else?”

What a surprise I got. This is a movie about a couple, Jacob and Monica, who fight a lot, and loudly, inside their small mobile home, upsetting their children, David 5 and Anne 10. The farm is Jacob’s dream, not shared by his wife who wants to be closer to friends, church, and a hospital, in case David’s heart defect becomes a crisis, which it could at any moment. They are on the verge of splitting up, when a very unconventional grandma arrives from Korea, providing both help and a new source of stress. This could be any family anywhere, right?

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Underlying Conditions

Lew Geer

Today, Saturday, February 27, 202, was the online memorial for Lew Geer, the partner of my close friend Nancy Dahl. He and Nancy had been together 22 years, and for both of them it was – and they often said it out loud to anyone within earshot – “the love of my life.” Lew died of Covid the day before Valentine’s Day in the hospital in Santa Fe, alone as so many have. But blessedly Nancy was able to visit him a few days earlier. I saw a photo of her, fully suited up, sitting on the bed, and it is clear that neither her hazmat gear nor his tangle of oxygen tubes and IVs could stop the love and adoration that flowed between them.

He was 74 and was living with a treatable kind of leukemia. A recent lab workup showed that he was doing well, and could continue to live a fairly normal life. And his “normal,” as I heard at the memorial today, was packed full of generosity, curiosity and fun. Of course I knew from my own friendship with him what a wonderful, loving person he was. He had lived in Japan and we sometimes carried on mock conversations in Japanese, he way better than me! In so-called retirement, he was on boards and contributed to projects that were very worthy but unlikely to attract the support needed. He took up petanque  (google it!), played chess, made cherry pies, doted on children and grandchildren, and kept his many friendships well nurtured. His zest for life never waned.  

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To Vax or Not to Vax

I have been deep into the subject of the Covid 19 vaccine for several months. As one of several facilitators under contract to Johns Hopkins I am zooming with community members around the country listening to their thoughts about the vaccine. Johns Hopkins is interested in learning how people make decisions about whether or not to take the vaccine. The project has many parts, including a national survey and regional focus groups, but my role involves what they call “vulnerable communities” (Latinx, Native American, African American).

We are working with seven communities in the East, South and West. About 30 community members from each of the sites are compensated to take part in a series of three meetings over four months. The groups are recruited for diversity in age, gender, and point of view, resulting in conversations that are rich as participants share and listen to each other. We are particularly interested in hearing their experiences with Covid, their sources of information, who they trust and who they don’t, and the values that influence how they make that decision about rolling up their sleeves. The first round of meetings was in December, just before the vaccine rolled out. The second round is happening now at the end of January and early February, when the vaccine is available, sort of, for some people in certain groups, in certain places. The last round of meetings will be sometime after April, when hopefully most of those we are talking with will have had the chance to be vaccinated if they want to.

It has been an honor to spend time with these groups of community members, by zoom of course. I’ve been moved by their willingness to share painful stories of loss and suffering in their own families, and impressed with their honesty about their fears and the motives behind certain choices about whether or not to take the vaccine. There have been tears, mine among them.

Among the Native and African American communities the history of exploitation and abuse of their people by both government and the medical profession is very much front and center in the decision-making about the vaccine. For the most part, they are not anti-vaxxers. Most get an annual flu shot and take their children for regular vaccinations. But their very real historical trauma triggers a deep distrust of this vaccine. Its development seems rushed, and the eagerness to get it into the arms of those most vulnerable (whether or not that is happening in reality) triggers memories of the US cavalry bringing small pox-laced blankets to the Dakotas in the late 19th century, and the Tuskegee syphilis research done on African American men as late as the 1970s. We heard “never again,” and “over my dead body” when we asked about likelihood to take the Covid vaccine, even if that dead body might be theirs. Some said they might take it after millions of others had taken it first. Some said they never would.

Although initially reluctant, many in the Latinx and Native communities confessed they might take the vaccine in order to protect elders in their family and the community at large. For Native Americans especially this was compelling. “We lose an elder, we lose more than someone we love. We lose a piece of our culture. The thread is broken and our way of life, our language is at risk.” Two young men on two different reservations said they would absolutely not risk taking the vaccine because even if they got sick it wouldn’t be that bad. After spending time on the screen, listening to other community members and thinking about their elders, they each said the same thing, “I guess I’d take one for the team. Someone has to be first, might as well be me.”

When asked about sources of information that they would trust, the majority identified relatives, friends, community leaders, or their own doctors. “I have an aunt who’s a nurse. I trust her.” “Our tribal leader will know what we should do.” “My son is smart. I’ll do what he says.” An African American woman probably spoke for many: “If Oprah Winfrey or Tyler Perry tells me to get the vaccine, I’m not listening to them! I’ll believe someone close to home, not some big star.” Some were amused that public service announcements and news reports always show “a black nurse sticking the needle in a black arm,” as if that would convince them to line up.

One of the groups includes immigrants from Mexico and Central America living on the East Coast. These meetings are in Spanish and differ in another way from the others. Almost 100% of participants want the vaccine, and they want it now. They are desperate to get back to work. Little else matters.

And for some it’s complicated. A young woman feels it is her duty to get the vaccine and wants it, but she is pregnant and her doctor advised against it. “I’m embarrassed. I feel guilty. I want to do my part, but I can’t” and we saw her hold her belly on screen. Another woman finally let her son return to basketball practice after months of isolation. The very next day the coach came down with Covid. She was waiting for a test for her son. “I had to let him go back. He was so miserable. But now maybe he’ll get sick.”  She slumped in her chair, shaking her head, and added “maybe he should get the vaccine so he can have his life back.” Some were in conflict with family members, feeling pressured to make a decision that didn’t feel right.

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Covid vaccine line, Spanish Fork, Utah

For the last several weeks I have been immersed in vaccine decision-making as I have listened to community members from a wide range of demographics and geographies grapple with the decision to vax or not to vax. I have heard so many passionate voices on all sides, pondering the questions, answers evolving. I have been the neutral facilitator, outside observer. But now I find myself faced with the decision myself, and here is my confession.

When it first was available in Santa Fe I did not rush to get it. I’m in group 1b, eligible after the front-line workers, but I was not sure. Maybe having heard all the fears and reluctance was getting to me. I told myself “well, it wouldn’t hurt to wait a while. I don’t need to be first. I’ll take my time and see how it goes.”

Then I got a call from my ex-husband, his voice triumphant, filled with excitement:  “I got the vaccine, I was one of the first…” and he went on to tell me how he stumbled into a line at Sam’s Club and got his first dose, second to follow in a month.

Suddenly, I had to have that vaccine! I registered on the New Mexico Department of Health website, got my code and eagerly awaited notice of my appointment. Nothing. I was impatient, ready to jump in the car…

…until I heard from a friend in Japan. She is a pharmacist and there is no way that she or her family is getting the vaccine. The long term effects of the new RNA-based vaccines are unknown, she warned. They will take their chances….

….And so am I! I don’t care if the Department of Health never calls me. I’m not getting anywhere near that shot!

Then, on a walk I ran into a neighbor. She’s over 80 and had just come back from her first shot. She was thrilled and told me a long story about how hard it was to find! Calls to the hospital, doctors, department of health. No one could help her. Then a friend told her that Albertson’s supermarket pharmacy had it. She called, was on hold for an hour, slammed down the phone and jumped in the car and drove there. They gave it to her on the spot….

…Okay! I was on it. I aborted my walk, hustled home and called Albertson’s. Only had to wait 40 minutes and was told that things had changed and now they were making appointments from the state list, no more dropping in. I said thanks and hung up. If no one wanted to give me a shot, I just wouldn’t get one. I didn’t want one anyway….

…Until, my husband got a call from the VA to come in next Saturday for the vaccine. How come he gets it and I don’t? How come I’m not a veteran? What about facilitators? Don’t we count?

There is such a thing, I have learned, as scarcity mentality. Once you think there is not enough of something, you want it desperately. My decision-making may be just that simple-minded. I can take it or leave it — until I think you’re getting it all and there won’t be any left for me. 

And just think, my profession is helping people make clear-headed, fact-based decisions. I hope you see the irony. I do.

My husband Roberto admires his ban-daid, Albuquerque VA Hospital 1-30-21 (I’m jealous!)

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