We’ve been talking this month about ways that valuing diversity is critical for leaders in higher education. But what does that look like? How can I address the big challenges we face?
According to the novelist Chimamanda Adichie, one important step is to recognize the importance of stories. In this TED talk, she makes a compelling case that when we only know one thing about a person or a place, we can’t engage in real interactions. People’s lives and cultures are built on many overlapping stories. If all we know about someone is that she was a high school dropout, or that his family was homeless, or that her parents are immigrants, we won’t be able to create the kind of environment that will help them succeed.
Early in my career, I supervised a team that included an older woman from a culture differnt than mine. The relationship did not start out well. I realize now that I was telling myself a very small story about her – she was older, we didn’t share a culture, she had difficulty performing some of the work tasks – and I didn’t make the effort to learn more. I thought I was behaving professionally, but I think she found me to be uncaring.
Our story had a happy ending. A few months later we both became pregnant, I with my first child and she with her third. Suddenly we had a common bond, things to talk about in the lunch room. This opened communication and created a smoother working relationship. This experience taught me a lot about leading diverse teams.
In the talk, Adichie shares her experiences with learning to tell her own stories and hear others. Here are some of my favorite quotes:
- The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.
- Power is the ability, not just to tell a single story about another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.
- I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all the stories of that place or that person
I’d encourage you to view the talk, and consider discussing it together in a team meeting. Ask yourself and your team – how can we seek a balance of stories?
Dee Anne Bonebright