Bill Clinton was interviewed for Newsweek’s end-of-year issue, and he said some very interesting things. 

“…you have to  believe that in an interdependent world, what we have in common is more important than our interesting differences.  And the only way to celebrate and make the most of our differences is to get rich out of our differences, create vibrant markets out of our differences. It enables people to have fevered debate in politics without stealing elections or shooting the opposition.”

There were two thoughts in that paragraph that sparked my interest.  First, the idea that leveraging difference can provide competitive advantage in the private sector, a central tenet of my own diversity awareness training.  And second, that what we have in common must be recognized first, if we are to leverage those differences instead of shooting each other over them.

So often in a diversity class I hear people say, “Why do we have to have diversity classes?  Why are we making a big deal out of our differences?  Why not focus on what we have in common?”  It is usually white males that say this, and it is usually a woman or person of color that speaks up and explains why difference is important, often relieving me of the necessity to do so.  But Clinton’s remarks got me to thinking.  Is that the right response?  Perhaps we should be acknowledging the importance of our similarities and common interests first. 

Elsewhere in the same issue of Newsweek, Nancy Pelosi is interviewed.  Answering a question about partisanship, she says, “I always say, what are the three most important issues facing Congress? Our children, our children, our children. So, if you look at it that way, we are a pretty homogeneous group.”  A perfect example of focusing on the commonalities first.

Getting back to Bill Clinton, he talks about the wonderful things Rwandan President Paul Kagame has done to move his country beyond the horrific genocide it has suffered.  He created “reconciliation villages”, where citizens get a free plot of land to build a house,  but they have to agree to live next door to someone of the opposite ethnic group.  In this way they are forced to find those commonalities.

How could we harness this idea in a diversity awareness class?  Here are some ideas:

  • Put participants in groups to identify and discuss the mission, vision and values of the team they work with
  • Lead a discussion of the family values each participant was brought up with, looking for opportunities to identify commonalities
  • Ask the “five why’s” every time someone identifies a particular perspective on a controversial issue.  Sometimes if you drill down several layers to why someone believes what they believe, it turns out they have the same underlying interests as others; it just gets expressed in a different position
  • Have small groups tell stories on a particular topic, looking for similar experiences.  A good one is, what was your first day of work with this organization like?  What were you worried about, what surprised you, how did it measure up to your expectations?

What other ideas do you have?

Comments are closed.