Frontline Initiative Diversity

Embracing Diversity:
A Cornerstone to New Support Models


Alan D. Lewis, MSW, Ed.D. is Chair and Field Director of the Social Service Program at Pima Community College, Tuscon, AZ. He teaches a course on diversity and multiculturalism at various universities and colleges and has presented extensively throughout the United States on these issues. Currently he is working on his second book on Biracial children.

Fifteen-year-old Ahmad just completed his first individual session with a counselor. Although he accepted a second appointment, he asked if the counselor could see him on any day besides Friday. The counselor indicated that she only had Fridays open. Since Friday was his Sabbath, Ahmad failed to show up for his next appointment. In this situation, the counselor missed an opportunity to effectively support Ahmad and gain credibility and respect because she didn’t try to accommodate his special needs that come from his religious background.

In the last decade, our country has been grappling with “increasing,” “understanding,” “respecting,” “supporting,” and “defining” diversity. Out of this dialogue, many definitions have appeared, but one way diversity can be defined is as the sum total of the potential to be found in any group of people because of their differences.

In direct support services, the increased understanding of the value that differing perspectives bear is a boon in a time when services are being more consistently offered to people in their own communities and homes, and where connection to community and respect for individual needs are becoming cornerstones to contemporary services. In addition, the direct support workforce is increasingly made up of people of differing backgrounds, partially due to the fact that organizations are drawing from the pool of immigrants to fill critical positions.

Trying to understand the worldview of others is the hallmark of embracing diversity. As a Peace Corps volunteer 20 years ago, I worked in Malaysia as a counselor providing services to biracial children who were having difficulty dealing with the implications of being from two different cultures. The population I worked with was composed of three distinct ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese, and Asian Indians. I was constantly challenged to understand the views of these individuals based on their cultures. Fortunately, all Peace Corps volunteers went through a cultural training program. Had it not been for this training that helped us develop the right attitude and skills, our work would have been totally ineffective. I found that the best way to be helpful in counseling was to acknowledge and respect the differences between myself and the other person, and accommodate my counseling style to the person’s uniqueness. The need to adjust certainly holds true for direct support situations in today’s community support.

Embracing, rather than merely tolerating diversity generates greater respect, understanding, and cooperation among people. Usually when first encountering people different from ourselves, we have certain assumptions about them. We may choose to continue to hold on to our assumptions or grow personally and professionally by challenging our assumptions and seeking well-rounded information. For instance, if you suspect that a coworker might be unhappy with you because she does not look directly at you when speaking, you may want to tell her how you feel. You might find out that in her culture, this is a signal of politeness.

Despite our differences, we are more similar than we think. Oftentimes, it is easier to accept differences once we understand what we have in common. There are values shared universally. We all need to be loved, accepted, and respected. However, the way in which these desires are expressed may be different across cultural groups and individuals.

How do we move beyond our own experiences to embrace diversity? We need to realize that there is merit in honoring differences. While there is no handbook on the right way to become sensitive to diversity, there are things that might be helpful in this process. Some recommended strategies to start a journey toward understanding and appreciation are as follows. Remember, no matter how much you have learned, be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them.

  • Join a local folk dancing group.
  • Take a culinary arts class to learn about food and eating habits around the world.
  • Watch movies about cultures that are different from your own.
  • Surf the internet for sites that focus on diversity and multiculturalism issues.
  • Attend celebrations that honor contributions made by people of various backgrounds, e.g., the Martin Luther King Celebration.
  • Consider hosting an exchange student in your home.
  • Volunteer for community programs that support culturally diverse population.

As international boundaries continue to diminish, we will be interacting more with various cultures than ever before. To succeed in this environment, direct support professionals need to strive to not only accept diversity, but to be knowledgeable and competent in supporting others in the diverse workplaces and communities.