NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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A message from the Director – Hearts of GOLD: An opportunity for leadership training on diversity and inclusion

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By Deborah H. Lee, Director, NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory 

The high value placed on diversity at NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) is clearly stated, front and center in our 2016-2020 strategic plan, as presented in the organizational goal: “Secure a diverse workplace that is supported by an organizational culture of inclusiveness.” There is a societal need to advance diversity in the workplace. In addition to being an ethical business practice, diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual orientation enhances the “joint intellectual potential” of an organization.

I have long been a proponent of advancing diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace.  To help move these principles forward at GLERL, I chose to participate in the training, “Hearts of GOLD” (Geosciences Opportunities for Leadership in Diversity) this past July in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Hearts of GOLD is a National Science Foundation sponsored project led by a group of 6 investigators including NOAA’s LaToya Myles of the Office of Oceanic Research, Air Resources Laboratory. The goal of the project is to help leaders in geosciences become champions for diversity by teaching new tools, skills, and attitudes that include learning how to work with colleagues “different” from ourselves.

The driving question posed at the training was, “Why should we value diversity?”  In answering this question and others, we learned that social science research reveals that a diverse workforce can advance core elements for organizational success, such as enhanced innovation through creativity, increased diligence and a committed work ethic, more balanced decision making and robust problem-solving, as well as boosting a company’s bottom line. In looking beyond our organizational boundaries, diversity essentially produces a healthier society by including all of its members.

Our instructors, Drs. Dena R. Samuels and Stephany Rose of University of Colorado – Colorado Springs, led us through two days of often emotional and soul-searching discussion as we examined inclusivity, diversity, and social justice.  We learned about implicit bias—a term that describes when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge.  This bias often prevents us from achieving diversity by choosing to work with people most like ourselves or associated with positive stereotypes. To get a better sense of what is meant by this, you can assess your implicit biases at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.

We also learned that even if we can overcome implicit bias to achieve a diverse organization, it may not be enough to drive innovation without a culture of genuine inclusivity.  Inclusivity is an intention or policy of including people who are considered “different,” resulting in them being excluded or marginalized, such as those who are handicapped or learning-disabled, or racial or sexual minorities.  We were encouraged to seek out new experiences that challenge our bias, slow down and be present in the moment to catch the bias, and then act differently and practice “priming”—observing positive images of people from stereotyped groups or simply calling to mind counter-stereotypical information.

One topic that struck a personal chord with me was the subject of “microaggression”—an act I had experienced many times over in my career, even recently, as a woman in a non-traditional field.  Microaggressions are subtle words, cues, and/or behaviors that insult, invalidate, or exclude individuals. They are often based on a disadvantaged social identity and often cue stereotypes, labeling one as an outsider.  The recipient often feels disempowered to address the giver of these microaggressions, due to a balance of power, causing the recipient to be impacted cumulatively via a “death by a thousand cuts.”  The intent of the giver is to perpetuate systems of power—to keep those in power, in power, and those oppressed, in oppression.

Another challenging topic was the systemic impacts of privilege and its counterweight, oppression.  Privilege is being treated in ways that make you feel automatically included and valued and is generally an unearned advantage, versus a personal achievement, based on how your identity aligns with what is considered normal and accepted.  It significantly affects performance in academics, interviews, life chances and longevity. To illustrate the impact of privilege, we played a game where each player was allotted 12 pennies, which were then pooled in the center of the table.  When asked a series of questions regarding our experiences of privilege, or lack thereof, and depending on the answers, we were instructed to either to take a penny (benefited from privilege) or put a penny back in the pool (denied privilege).  By the end of the game, some players had “earned” 12 or more pennies from the pool, while others had no pennies or even “owed” pennies. The lessons learned from playing this game were profound, to say the least.

Through my experience at Hearts of GOLD, I became keenly aware that diversity and inclusion are not only important for creativity and innovation, but they are also fundamental for social justice to come to fruition.  The principle of social justice requires that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.  This popular graphic (https://ehhsdean.com/tag/equity/#jp-carousel-959) illustrates the concepts of equality and equity, but makes the case that until barriers to entry are removed, social justice cannot be achieved.

As leaders in the geosciences, we left the class with a stronger awareness and understanding of the challenges we face both within ourselves and externally within our organizations, the skills and tools we could bring to bear, and how to remove the barriers to social justice to create the next generation of geoscientists.

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