Monday, January 08, 2007

Appreciating diversity, part 2

Continued from this post.

My current job is in a large non-profit. Some of our departments have a lot of perceived prestige and visibility, while others are definitely not so glamorous. I work in arguably the second-least glamorous department here. And, since we're in the South, that means most of my co-workers are (a) black and (b) high-school educated or less. So yeah, I stick out a little.

When I walked in the door (and increased the white people count in our department by 25%), I was met with a mixed reaction. (Looking back, I think carrying my Dooney and Bourke purse may have been part of that.) Some folks welcomed me immediately. Some of my new colleagues did not disguise their suspicion (and were quite convinced that I was rich, again, see that Dooney). And some just pretty much ignored me.

But you know what? I had just about everyone charmed within a month. How did I do it?

I acted human. I brought a homemade dish to the first department potluck (only 3 weeks after my first day of work). I spoke respectfully. Most of the people I essentially supervise* are considerably older than I am. I call them ma'am. I show them pictures of my kids and ask to see pictures of theirs (or the grandkids). I buy their kids' school fundraiser items and they buy mine.

I don't play games or get involved in petty disputes or try to flaunt my education or upbringing or salary. And when they have a question? They come to me. For help with the computer. For help with their kids' college financial aid forms. For help with negotiating the medical system. (Not sure how I became the authority figure on that one, but I did.) They also come to me to share information. If someone is working the system, is pregnant and hiding it, is about to quit, I often know in advance.

And this December, when it was time to organize our department's holiday party, I had no problem getting a committee together to plan everything. And the party (a potluck lunch) went great, and I heard the rest of the day about my fantastic macaroni and cheese. (It is that good. But nice to hear the compliments.)

Being in this department has caused me to interface not only with the employees in my department, but also with the employees in similar departments (housekeeping, security, etc.) and to develop relationships with these employees too. Which means when I walk through the building, I am cordially greeted by the guys in maintenance (with whom I share chili recipes and a deep, deep love for venison), the security guards, and the cleaning ladies. Because they know I'm not one of "those" people.

Not sure yet if I've got more to say about this. It feels like there might be more. But not today.

*I say essentially supervise because my job does not officially include supervision of employees. However, I do act as a de facto supervisor in the absence of a "real" supervisor. And the "real" supervisor position for that area was vacant for about six months over the past two years. So yeah, I was supervising.

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