Tag Archives: cultural competency

“Ruthlessly realistic”

“Stop pretending.”
“How did they treat you?”
“No such thing as color blind.”
“Being comfortable being uncomfortable”

These are strong words that capture the essence of a TED talk I want to share with you. Mellody Hobson says that mentioning race is the conversational equivalent of “touching the third rail.”  It can feel risky and people don’t know how to respond.

As leaders, Hobson says it is important for us to step bravely into the conversation about racism and discrimination at work. Acknowledging the realities of discrimination and overcoming our fear of talking about it is the first step to creating inclusive workplaces.

Join over 2 million people and take a few minutes to watch and listen to her 2014 TED talk.

It’s hard, but we need to be “color brave, not color blind.”

Todd Thorsgaard


John Lennon or Harry Potter?




When you see wire-rimmed glasses, do you think of John Lennon or Harry Potter? Or maybe John Denver? It might depend on your age.

The Mindset List is an intriguing way to think about the diversity of our student body. Each year Beloit College puts out a list of facts about the incoming freshman class. For 2018, it included:

  • During their initial weeks of kindergarten, they were upset by endlessly repeated images of planes blasting into the World Trade Center.
  • In their lifetime, a dozen different actors have portrayed Nelson Mandela on the big and small screen.
  • FOX News and MSNBC have always been duking it out for the hearts and minds of American viewers.
  • Female referees have always officiated NBA games.
  • Bill Gates has always been the richest man in the U.S.
  • One route to pregnancy has always been through frozen eggs.
  • Their collection of U.S. quarters has always celebrated the individual states.
  • When they see wire-rimmed glasses, they think of Harry Potter.

As interesting as it is, the list makes some assumptions about our freshman students that may nor may not be the case. For example, that they have always lived in the U.S., or that they  have always had access to mainstream U.S. media.

As our higher education workforce ages, it can be harder to understand the mindset of the students we are serving. Activities that worked well may not work anymore, or new options might exist. For example, Beloit suggested that students who are used to binge-watching TV programs might also want to binge-watch video portions of their coursework. Whether or not that’s desirable, what might it mean for course development?

What can you do to include a reality check in your planning?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Can you hear me?

Are you reacting differently to these quotes? Would it be different if they weren’t attached to the photos or attributed to a specific person?

This isn’t a new phenomenon but it seems to be getting worse. We are not very good at listening to people we perceive as different from ourselves. That makes it hard to build inclusive work teams, share diverse points of view, and leverage the strengths of everyone on your team.

The founders of Living Room Conversations want to help people actually listen to each other rather than debate and talk at each other. Recently a number of leaders at several of our campuses have used the Living Room conversation agreements and topic-specific conversation guides to tackle the tough topics of status, privilege and race with diverse groups of faculty and staff.

Conversation Agreements

  1. Be curious and open to learning
  2. Show respect and suspend judgement
  3. Look for common ground and appreciate differences
  4. Be authentic and welcome that from others
  5. Be purposeful and to the point
  6. Own and guide the conversation

The actual conversations become structured “deep listening sessions” that include an orientation to the process, intentional time-keeping and facilitation and a closing period. An example of the status and privilege guide can be found here – Conversation Guide.

I can attest to the almost magical listening and sharing that occurs during a living room conversation. People stop interrupting each other, they smile as they hear the stories others share, and they are surprised by how easy it is to share their own story with people who are actually listening to them.

When we asked participants after the conversations the majority responded that they had not changed their personal points of view but they now could see more common ground with their colleagues, despite their differences. Further, there was universal support for more dialogue.

Using a structure to help people actually listen to each other can provide a starting point for greater inclusion, in the workplace and beyond.

Todd Thorsgaard

Connections and inclusion

As an introvert I am not always comfortable making connections at work, even though people naturally listen to me and accept me. After all, as a white male I am a member of the dominant culture and I am automatically included. The same is not true for employees with a diverse background or from a non-dominant culture. They struggle to be included.

A recent article, Diversity and Authenticity, in the March-April 2018 Harvard Business Review highlights that “decades’ worth of studies have shown that similarity attracts – a phenomenon known as homophily.” The study focused on the reality that “disclosing elements of one’s personal life and forming social connections are easier within one’s own group than they are across a demographic boundary like racial background.” In other words, it is easier to hire a diverse team than it is to ensure that everyone feels included.

The authors suggest three strategies to break down the barriers to inclusion.

  1. Structure – Introduce structure and clarity to team events to facilitate shared and equal opportunities to talk to all team members. Define roles and reasons for activities and clarify the expectation of non-judgmental listening.
  2. Learning – Role model and facilitate a learning approach to dialogue rather than a statement-driven approach. Research indicates that genuine curiosity and open questions make it easier to share stories across differences and make an emotional connection.
  3. Mentorship – Utilize informal “buddies”, mentors and employee resource groups to facilitate relationship building for both new hires and employees from marginalized groups. These more experienced colleagues can help break down social barriers, provide background information, context and make introductions.

Leaders can build inclusion by helping team members make connections across their differences.

Todd Thorsgaard

Stewardship and tragedy

scsu-rallyOne leadership competency that is always important is the ability to respond in the moment. I am going to take a quick detour from stewardship and share a powerful set of stories and images from the past week. This photo by @NickLenz captures what it means to be a leader in higher education. Students, faculty, staff, administrators and interim president Ashish Vaiyda all joined together for a rally this week in response to the stabbing incident in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

I have been proud to read the stories of how one of our schools has demonstrated true compassion in response to a tragedy and unwavering support of students and community members who are threatened because of their ethnic background. They all stepped up in a public arena and led a rally for unity. Afterwards they also hosted small group discussions.

I will let their words and pictures speak for themselves.

#StCloudUnited twitter feed

MPR News story

Bring Me the News story

St. Cloud Times story

Stillwater Patch story

KNSI radio story

Have a peaceful weekend.

Todd Thorsgaard

A problem? Not on my campus!

I was shocked when I read that 84% of college and university presidents believe that race relations on their campuses are good or excellent, as published in this month’s release of  Inside Higher Ed‘s 2016 Survey of College and University Presidents.  That number actually went up from 2015.

Compare that to the fact that only 24% of presidents described race relations on other campuses as good, and none described them as excellent.

These numbers suggest that leaders are struggling to recognize the need to take action on diversity and inclusion since everything is already good or excellent “on my campus.”

Do you agree? Do you think faculty, staff and students on your campus would agree?

A take-away for me from these numbers is that leaders need to make sure they are getting the unvarnished truth from their own people. However, most people are justifiably hesitant to share bad news with their leaders. In fact it is recognized that leaders are often shielded from bad news by those closest to them.

To truly ensure that race relations are good where we work, we need to make it safe for our people to share bad news – the unvarnished truth – with us on tough topics like diversity and inclusion.

Some tips on how to do this:

  1. Explicitly and regularly ask for bad news. Ask directly about what people are hesitant to share.
  2. Don’t assume that people are sharing bad news – actively look for it.
  3. Examine and change how we respond to hearing bad news.
    • Prepare in advance and minimize negative reactions like “Oh no!” or “I can’t believe it.”
    • Purposely thank people for sharing bad news with you.
  4. Recognize and even celebrate when bad news has been addressed and an improvement has occurred.

This is easier said than done. I know that when I am facilitating and participants share what “our system” isn’t doing to address racism my first reaction is to defend the leaders I work with, or to share all the good work I know is happening. I have to work hard to listen and thank them for sharing their truths.

Think back to the last time someone on your team pointed out an issue or shared some bad news. Was it welcomed?

Todd Thorsgaard




Where do I start?

growing_sales_spiral_250wI guess the simple answer is to start with ourselves and our team. As leaders our opportunity to make a difference starts with the culture of respect we create within our own team.

But how? I found a number of practical ideas on the Critical MultiCultural Pavillion created by EdChange.org. It is a website created by a team of educators dedicated to equity, diversity, multiculturalism, and social justice. They provide resources for workshops, staff meetings and projects that support progressive change in our educational systems. I want to share an activity that I recently experienced and encourage you to give it a try with your team! It is called the “Circles of My MultiCultural Self” and the full instructions can be found by clicking on the link.

Briefly, each of us created our own set of circles identifying cultural and personal elements of ourselves that we defined as important for making us who we are. Next we spent a few minutes with a partner, each sharing a story about a time we were most proud of one of our defining elements and a story when it was a painful moment. Finally we were asked to identify a stereotype about one of our unique elements, or circles, that was incomplete, incorrect or failed to fully capture who we are.

As we shared our stories and the stereotypes we have heard I was struck by how different my experiences have been as a member of the majority culture from my colleagues from a minority culture. What I defined as important, or had experienced as painful moments, were mostly internal or personal elements that I got to choose to share or not share. I was in control of sharing that I am a cancer survivor or a divorced co-parent of a teen-age girl. My colleagues from a diverse or minority culture mostly described painful moments and identifying characteristics that others attributed to them or imposed on them! They were labeled as “black” or “from another country” or “as having a confusing and hard to understand accent.” They were not allowed to define themselves.

This was a small but powerful growth experience for me and for the team as a whole and a step in creating an inclusive work environment.

Their website offers a number of resources for leaders looking for ways to support equitable opportunities for all people to be successful at work.

Todd Thorsgaard