I grew up as a man in white America. I had an unconscious assumption that everyone experienced life and saw the world as I did.
Bettye taught me that there are many worlds—that each of us has a unique history and experience life in a singular way.
I met Bettye when I was asked to lead a new 4,500 employee business unit in the company we worked for. I held meetings with employees and got to know Bettye. She was a stately black woman with a loud voice and a great sense of humor. Betty was down to earth, and she asked tough questions. She cared about people and was not intimidated by me. I liked her.
Bettye and I got to know one another. One day I invited her to lunch. I told her of a problem I had with my plans for a major vacation. She listened with interest and then told me how she raised four children without a father in south Minneapolis. She described how she tried to protect her children from gang influence and how she raised them to value work, education, and caring for others.
I felt about two inches tall as I listened. How could I work one hundred and fifty feet from someone and have no idea what her life was like? How could I assume that she could relate to my vacation problem or that I could relate to her life? How could I be so oblivious to the challenges my coworkers faced?
Months later, at Christmas, Betty and I shared lunch again. She told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that she and her children had a monthly roundtable where they discussed issues and made decisions. The discussion that month had been whether to use their available money to either get their car fixed or to buy Christmas presents. The younger kids wanted Christmas presents. The older kids realized the importance of a car in the wintertime and reminded the younger ones of the difficulties of riding the bus. The consensus was to get the car fixed. I felt humbled by the dignity of her life.
Betty taught me that the barriers of age, race, gender, and position can be overcome, and people can connect if they are willing to talk, listen, and hear one another. She also taught me how much we can learn from others.
This is the true meaning of diversity: Each person is different and brings a unique life-experience, world view, ideas, hopes, and dreams to the workplace. We also share a common humanity. A truly diverse workplace honors, accepts, and learns from the differences of each person and recognizes that diversity gives the organization the strength and talents to meet unknown challenges.
I was paid four or five times more than Betty. The CEO of our company was paid five or six times more than me. I sat about one hundred and fifty feet from Betty. The CEO of our company sat about one hundred and fifty feet above me. I wondered if his world was as far away from mine as mine was from Betty’s. I wondered if he was as unaware of the differences between his life and mine as I was of Betty’s and mine.
My greatest learning has come through people and settings I might not normally have been in. All of us should seek out experiences that will put us in the midst of people whose life experiences have been different from ours. Before judging others, we might spend some time imagining the context of their lives, their history, and their life experiences.
Tom Heuerman, Ph.D. is an organizational consultant, former Secret Service agent, and newspaper executive. He lives in Moorhead, MN