The Dance of Diversity

I am privileged to live a very interesting life at the moment, crossing the world several times each year and, within the past 22 months, visiting all 7 continents (in many cases more than once!). Just a few months ago, I was in Morocco and Spain. I’ve been to Saudi Arabia 4 times in the past 10 months, with a side trip to the United Arab Emirates on one of those trips and a brief stop in the UK on another one. Within the next few months, I’ll be returning to finish some training in Saudi, facilitating meetings in Nunavut (and it’s definitely been a “bucket list” item to get up there!), and serving on Team Canada at the International Symposium on Career Counselling and Public Policy in Seoul, Korea. Discussions are underway for another visit to Zimbabwe – and the list goes on!

Closer to home, I’ve been privileged to engage in conversations about the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), reflecting on how to convert some of them into action items that we can embed into our curriculum. I have friends and colleagues deeply involved in helping refugees integrate into life in Canada. The housing crisis in Vancouver is displacing working Canadian-born friends and family members and there remains a huge need to advocate for policies and programs to address a very wide range of social injustices. We don’t need to travel across the world to experience diversity – it’s all around us in our workplaces and communities.  And, as we’ve witnessed with our neighbours to the south after the recent election, there’s more than one way to respond!

I’m endlessly curious about similarities and differences; by nature, I tend to embrace diversity. Due to my opportunities to travel and work with such a variety of people, I’ve also been able to acquire some cultural awareness (really, just enough to keep me very humble and perpetually in the “conscious incompetence” stage!). However, in recent conversations with members of First Nations communities, colleagues and students in Saudi Arabia and China, and friends and colleagues at home who are curious about what I’m doing as I wander the earth, I’m also aware that, for many, fear interferes with embracing diversity.

I’ve likened this to a dance. Think of a family or community event, perhaps a wedding, where traditions have been passed on from one generation to the next. People have been taught to dance at these events from the time they were small children. Everyone just knows what to do – it’s easy and fun! In the 4 stages of learning model, they’re in “unconscious competence” – very good at what they’re doing but with no ability to explain how to do what they do.

For many years, I attended such events with my husband – and he wasn’t a particular fan of dancing, so I sat on the sidelines with him and watched. However, at the first wedding on my husband’s side of the family that I attended as a widow, people began asking me to dance. I explained that I didn’t know the dance or understand what to do and, invariably, they said, “it’s easy – come on!” (I did, and it wasn’t!) It seemed easy to them because they’d always danced that dance. It was hard for me because it wasn’t part of my culture or tradition and I simply didn’t know the rules.

However, with great partners, the learning was safe and fun. We stumbled a few times and stepped on each other’s toes, but there was kindness, laughter, and forgiveness. I could let go of my self-consciousness and enjoy the experience – I could embrace diversity, as long as I was being guided by a patient and gentle “cultural informant,” ideally one with a very good sense of humour!

20170110_184233This parallels my experience with diversity across the world – whether sitting on Persian carpets on the desert sand around the campfire in Saudi Arabia, sharing a meal with students in a university cafeteria in China, or walking the dark streets of Marrakech in Morocco with colleagues, to fetch our dinner from a brick oven in a room 6 inches deep with sawdust, I’ve enjoyed the learning because of very kind and compassionate cultural informants who were willing to teach me to dance their way and to give me a small glimpse into a very different view of the world.

May you, too, learn to dance . . .

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