Moving beyond unintentional intolerance

Demographic changes call for organizations, individuals to correspond
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Several years ago, Steve L. Robbins, PhD, coined the term "unintentional intolerance" to define biases of which people are unaware. Dr. Robbins was the special guest presenter of the Veterinary Diversity Symposium July 21 in New Orleans, an AVMA Annual Convention event made possible by Pfizer Animal Health.

Steve L. Robbins, PhD
Steve L. Robbins, PhD, challenges attendees of the Veterinary Diversity Symposium to be aware of their unintentional intolerance and become path makers striving for a diverse, inclusive society.

Dr. Robbins exhorted the profession "both at the society level and also at the AVMA level" to look at how it does things that might lead to unintended consequences.

"We know there are some demographic changes that are occurring, and those changes call upon organizations like the AVMA to maybe do some things differently than they have in the past so that the AVMA and veterinary medicine can continue to excel in the 21st century," he said.

Attendees were welcomed to the symposium, now in its fourth year, by Dr. Evan M. Morse, who chaired and moderated the event on the issue he regards as "the paradox of diversity."

As he explains, "We are each unique and like no one else; we are each like some other people and unlike other people; we are each like all other people."

The daylong learning session offered insights into issues of diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence.

Drs. Morse, Robbins, and Spensley
Chairman and moderator of the Veterinary Diversity Symposium was Dr. Evan M. Morse (left), owner of Warrensville Animal Hospital in Cleveland, with keynoter Steve L. Robbins, PhD, president and CEO of S.L. Robbins & Associates, and Dr. Michael S. Spensley, director of Global Alliances for Pfizer Animal Health, sponsor of the event.

Dialogue and creative exercises centered on topics such as culture, stereotyping, cognitive dissonance, understanding power and privilege, and becoming a "path maker" instead of a "path blocker."

Social justice versus the cognitive toolbox

"Culture is the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior," said Dr. Robbins, who works with organizations such as Boeing, NASA, and Toyota. A social psychologist by training, he studies human behavior to enlighten people on how it can inform work involving issues of diversity and inclusion.

Acquired perspectives open people to seeing certain problems and solutions while simultaneously blinding them to other problems and solutions, according to Dr. Robbins.

When addressing open-mindedness, it's essential to talk about its partner, closed-mindedness, he said. Cognitive dissonance is a motivational theory describing a state of two conflicting views. People do one of two things when confronted with this—fight or flight. Fight involves entertaining an idea; flight involves blocking it, which is closed-minded.

Dr. Robbins said research suggests people will fight to the death for their reality—even after they find out they're wrong.

"In the 21st century, we're asking people to do so much with so little—anxiety and stress cause us to pull back to what we know," he said. This applies to diversity in that people tend to be more closed-minded because they revert to what's comfortable for them.

"Micro-inequities are the things we often do that we're unaware of that devalue people," he said. It can be something as simple as an audience member checking their Blackberry instead of listening to the speaker, or a person unintentionally conveying a negative attitude in the tone of their voice.

Formal diversity training in the U.S. got its start in the 1970s in response to the civil rights movement. The social justice approach, as he calls it, formed the framework for much of the diversity training that took place early on—some of which continues today. Solutions applied in this approach include antiracism and antisexism workshops and efforts toward greater equitability and fairness, sensitivity, and awareness.

The philosophy of treating others fairly because they're human beings and "it's the right thing to do" flows from the social justice approach, he said.

The other approach is the cognitive toolbox, which seeks out diverse experiences and perspectives to solve complex problems through creativity and innovation. Research suggests that diversity and diverse perspectives lead to better problem solving, Dr. Robbins explained. Diversity is a strength and, therefore, not something required merely by compliance, federal mandates, or even reasons of fairness.

"Seek out different perspectives before arriving at your certainties," Dr. Robbins said. The best way to entertain an idea is to ask "What if?" That leads to open-mindedness, creativity, and more innovation. "In business, it's called scenario-based thinking," he added.

"We live in socially constructed realities," he said. "We have the ability to change the rules."

Symposiums' scope broadening

Dr. Larry M. Kornegay was one of the AVMA Executive Board members who attended portions of the symposium. Dr. Kornegay chaired the Task Force on Diversity in 2005-2006.

Diversity exercise
Dr. Robbins said to imagine a world where diversity is seen as strength—not a compliance issue—and then asked attendees to spread out and try raising their arms for four minutes. As the exercise grew painful, some of them began heeding the words of the Bill Withers song "Lean on Me," which had just begun to play, and leaned on one another. When the work of diversity and inclusion becomes hard and painful, Robbins urged them to rely on one another as allies in the fight.

"I do believe that Dr. Robbins was exceptional with his presentation—very captivating, attention-catching, and thought-provoking," Dr. Kornegay said. "His personal family history of migration to the United States as a young boy with his mother and sister at the end of the Vietnam War and subsequent lowlights and highlights in his life were compelling."

Dr. Kornegay acknowledged Dr. Morse as being the anchor and backbone of this Veterinary Diversity Symposium from the beginning.

"The fact that Dr. Morse is a veterinarian and has advanced studies in diversity makes him a knowledgeable leader and credible speaker," he said.

A jazz ensemble
A jazz ensemble conducted by Dr. Morse becomes a colorful metaphor for the interactions of America's racial and ethnic groups and how to achieve a multicultural identity.

Another attendee, Dr. Janver Krehbiel, shared his feedback about the symposium with his fellow Executive Board members at their July 23 meeting. Later he said, "The diversity symposium provides a good forum where people can talk candidly about their concerns. The Executive Board is sincerely interested in ongoing interaction with the symposium group as we keep the task force report before us and continue to discuss how to best serve the diversity initiative."

Dr. Kornegay said, "I've attended portions of all four symposiums and think that they continue to broaden in overall scope but at the same time are starting to focus on particular areas of diversity study and emphasis."

Diversity rhythming

The birthplace of jazz provided the perfect backdrop for a musical performance commentated by Dr. Morse metaphorically capturing the similarities between jazz and the nature of diversity and inclusion.

From New Orleans' blend of voices and cultures eventually came America's most distinctive music, created by people denied the most basic benefits of being Americans, he said.

"Jazz had no single creator; it began as a gumbo and was stirred and seasoned by thousands of hands," Dr. Morse said. "I always say that jazz was created from diversity and adversity."

Each musician alternated between playing and abstaining, taking cues from Dr. Morse as he illustrated his message: "In many ways, America is like a group of jazz musicians. Each musician brings a specific tone, texture, sound, and unique quality to the music which is being played. Each musician wants his/her space and time in the spotlight. But they must find a common ground while still maintaining a sense of self in order to make the music mellow." In the context of this diversity presentation, Dr. Morse continued, each musician/instrument can be equated to one of America's racial, ethnic, or cultural groups.

Accompanied by the musicians playing tuba and tympani, trumpet and drum, Dr. Morse said it's all about communication and understanding, one musician "feeding" the other. If one instrument is absent or too loud, the music suffers.

But, he added with a smile, "When it all works, the music is sweet."