Our Differences Make Us Unique, So Let’s Talk About Them
It was a heart-wrenching experience that makes Dale Harris cringe to this day. The Senior Project Manager for Facilities Operations and Development moved to Alabama from Trinidad and Tobago in 1991. It was there where he came face-to-face with racism.
He worked in a restaurant and one day, one of his regular customers, a Caucasian woman said to him, “You’re not from here, so you’re not like these other Black folks here.”
“This was pure ignorance because except for my accent, I’m exactly like them,” Harris said. “I spent a lot of time being angry.”
Harris says she had a negative perception of Black Alabamians, but because he was from the Caribbean, he did not fall into that category.
“You feel like an outsider and you feel alone,” Harris said.
It’s that experience and many others like it that have fueled his fire for cultural change. Harris used to be on A&P’s Diversity Council and is always looking for ways to help promote diversity and inclusion within the department.
One day, he heard about A&P’s Diversity Café and decided to attend. The program offers A&P staff the chance to bring a bagged lunch and discuss diversity-related topics. The goal is to increase awareness and understand all perspectives through community dialogue. A&P Senior Manager of Diversity Inclusion Education Dmitri Gaston organized the cafe.
“It’s about food for the mind and opportunities for people to have that voice, have something to contribute and feel valued in the workplace itself,” Gaston said.
“I was really happy with it,” Harris said. “It got me to see that the interest everyone has about understanding each other is there and that is very invigorating for me.”
So far, Gaston has hosted three Diversity Cafés around campus this year. During the hour-long session, he gives a welcome and introduction and offers a brief story about a diversity-related topic, which is meant to break the ice and spark deep thought and dialogue.
“It intrigues them and that’s what we’re looking for,” Gaston said.
Then he yields the floor to participants for conversation and feedback.
“You could have a great conversation in five minutes with a coworker who might have a different position on certain things from you,” Gaston said. “But, when you walk away from that conversation, you know more about that individual than they would have known in five years if you hadn’t had the conversation.”
Carmeen Yarbrough is a Human Resources Generalist with A&P and also went to a café.
“I think as a university, it’s important for us to make sure that both the classroom and the workplace are welcoming to all,” Yarbrough said. “I think the ability to do that lies with us learning from each other and understanding differences.”
“We set the atmosphere for people to understand there’s no judgment here,” Gaston said. “This is really an opportunity for you to showcase your true, authentic self in a respectful way.”
Yarbrough says, although she is encouraged by the conversations at the Diversity Café, she would like to see more A&P staff attend in the future.
“You tend to see the same people who are already involved with diversity programs in attendance,” Yarbrough said, “But we would like to spark an interest with the larger community so we can have even richer conversations and a greater impact.”
“We are a diverse society,” Gaston said. “The university, the city, and the world are diverse and that means everybody belongs.”
To RSVP for the Diversity Café or for additional information, please email Dmitri Gaston at firstname.lastname@example.org.