By Rebecca A. Doyle
From public safety to pest control, from roofing to recycling, the departments that comprise business and finance units are as diverse in the services they provide as they are in job families and in racial and ethnic composition.
Recognizing that diversity, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Farris W. Womack decided to hand the ball to individual units three years ago when business and finance began its diversity program. Each unit has a task force that works on programs throughout the year, allowing each to decide what kinds of programs will benefit them the most. They come together once a year for a convocation, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to celebrate and share their progress.
For some, such as grounds and waste management, just getting together to talk about racism and sexism in a series of brown-bag lunch sessions has raised awareness.
Other units offer mentoring programs for new staff members and recognize individual contributions to understanding racial, ethnic and gender differences.
Still others have found tangible ways to express the individuality of each participating staff member.
‘A single bracelet does not jingle’
Karen L. Simpson and Mary T. Slider, both student account clerks in student financial operations, were talking about quilts as art in the workplace and Simpson thought a quilt with squares contributed by her co-workers “would express something tangible about diversity.” The result is a colorful 68-inch-square quilt that tells something about each of the 15 contributors. Simpson’s contribution—in addition to the border and backing—is an Arabian star pattern made from African fabric that reflects her personal history.
A black and white square represents a staff member who is color blind, and a complicated red and white cathedral window pattern was stitched by a male staff member. Simpson says that no one thought a man could sew such an intricate piece, one of many stereotypes the units’ programs are able to address.
Becoming aware of the different heritages and backgrounds has been a slow process, Simpson says, but it has made people more aware of the need for understanding each other, and there has been change.
Piecing together the quilt, Simpson says she was reminded of an African proverb: “A single bracelet does not jingle.”
‘I give it back as often as I can’
“The quilt is a good picture of how
everybody is different,” says Brenda J. Byrd, a collections interviewer in financial operations. “The squares are each different, but put together, they make a beautiful whole.”
Byrd contributes her talent by singing in the Diversity Choir, now in its third year of performances. This year, the choir performed “Diversity Theme Song,” which Byrd wrote, at the convocation.
“I felt the need for something to express in music what is happening, to show where the need is to all those who don’t see the significance of or the need to promote diversity,” she says.
Although not everybody puts the same effort into learning about differences, Byrd says there are very positive changes going on at the U-M. “We have some very positive leadership toward diversity,” she says.
“Diversity is a fact—it’s not if you want it or if you think it’s good—it’s just a fact. We are made up of all kinds of people from all places.
“Difference is what everyday life is about,” Byrd says. “You don’t want to eat the same thing every day, to wear the same thing every day. It means recognizing the differences, seeing what you can take from somebody’s difference and seeing what you can add to it to make it better.”
Byrd also performed as soloist during the convocation. “Music is one of my talents, a gift, and I give it back as often as I can,” she explains.
‘The rest of the story’
Gerard F. Heath, foreman for medical science zone maintenance, promised his audience information that would “surprise and educate” them. Heath is “registered on the tribal roles of the Moravian band of the Delaware Indians, and active in Native American affairs in Michigan.
He explained the origin of the expression “bury the hatchet,” which he says came from an agreement reached in 1450 among Indian tribes to stop revenge killings in order to preserve the Indian race.
“The legend goes that the Great Creator sent his prophet, called by the Indians ‘Peacemaker,’ to save the race.
“They were bound together by a system of representative government that respected their individual differences,” Heath said, “and allowed them a voice in how this confederacy would be governed.
“Once the tribes had agreed on a system of government, ‘Peacemaker’ buried all their weapons beneath a large pine tree.”
The agreement, known as the Great Law of Peace, was the basis for the Albany Plan of Union, proposed by Benjamin Franklin as the governing instrument for the original colonies, which later became the basis for the Articles of Confederation and, ultimately, the U.S. Constitution.
Heath granted that many in his audience might find the story unbelievable, especially since “you cannot read about it in any of your American history books.” He then quoted Senate Concurrent Resolution 76, introduced in 1987, which was drafted to “acknowledge the contributions of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution in that … (it) was explicitly modeled on the Iroquois Confederacy.”
“The Great Law of Peace went on to unify the 13 colonies into the most powerful and the most free nation on this planet.
“And now you know the rest of the story,” Heath concluded.
“Diversity is a term that has a number of meanings for us,” Womack said at the convocation. “But its real meaning is that it makes us better and makes us stronger. We think that we are better and stronger because of our diversity rather than weakened by it.” He concluded the program by urging the 2,000-member business and finance group to practice the principles King taught every day.
“What we honor today will mean much more if we practice those principles every day rather than just coming together on one day and talking about them.”