All of us think we are open minded, free of prejudice, and sensitive to differences. We also know that trying to uphold these values is a struggle. Often our sensitivity and compassion are limited by what we know and see. Our eyes can be opened to new dimensions, attributes, and new understandings by a shift in perspective that reveals new truths.
I have given a number of talks about diversity and networking in Canada. Canadians talk about "visible minorities", a more politically correct colored people. Diversity is very different in Canada for obvious and not so obvious historical reasons. Nevertheless, they differentiate between the visible and the invisible.
I remember when I was working at UCLA and was responsible for recruiting its top undergrad scholars. We formed this UCLA Ambassador group as the creme de la creme to represent UCLA and recruit more scholars. The Ambassadors were presented to a very diverse group of leaders and a prominent African American leader expressed her disappointment at the lack of diversity of this student group. We had the Ambassadors introduce themselves and the audience was treated to a United Nations set of multi-racial, religious, immigrant, sexual preference, and economically diverse biographies that made everyone proud. Diversity is not visible and is most often not skin deep. Often we only talk and think about the visible. Many populations are invisible to the naked eye. Populations with wonderful histories, unmet needs, and under represented potential.
This week my perspective of my fellow humankind was forever changed. This shift tested my comfort and sense of how inclusive I am. How open minded I am. How accepting I am of differences. I saw something right in front of me for the first time.
I had the great fortune of attending an intimate meeting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Been around a lot of leader types over my varied career. Admiral Mullen is one of the most genuine, compassionate, and competent leaders I have ever encountered. He speaks from the heart, he listens, and he discloses his weaknesses. Pretty amazing for a command and control 4 star general!
His focus was on the fate of the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 2,000,000 men and women have been deployed to these wars and their return back to civilian life has been very rough. A few facts that made me think and view things differently:
- 25% have traumatic brain injuries(tbi)
- 25% have post traumatic stress disorder(ptsd)
- Homelessness is 4x bigger, 4x faster, and 4x more severe than Vietnam Vets
He discussed in great detail the challenges that the government has had to make sure that returning soldiers have a successful transition into civilian life. He admitted that these two systems are separate bureaucracies that are not well coordinated. The system has many holes and many soldiers and their families fall through those gaps and the consequences can be brutal. Admiral Mullen is on a tour of the country to raise the visibility of the needs of veterans and the role of local communities to provide assistance. He admitted that government could not do it alone. He asserted that local communities will be an important third component.
There are many organizations that support veterans, and he is grateful for the groups that recognize veterans and put on parades, but he wants to help grow and invest in organizations that are involved in the long term treatment and education of veterans.
During the meeting, many examples where veterans are not being included in the services, programs, and outreach for homeless, mentally ill, substance abuse etc. Veterans are not turned away, but they are not being included or recruited.
Hopefully your perspective may shift a bit and when you encounter a vet or a family, engage them and if they need help, guide them. Here is a couple of great resources for veterans and their families:
Inclusion is not a passive act, It is a proactive act. Inclusion is not just an open door or an open mind. It is a process of engaging and understanding. It is building bridges. Inclusion requires awareness, education, and targeted approaches. After listening to Admiral Mullen I realized that serving veterans would require this mindset. That serving veterans and their families will require great intention and effort. That veterans are not a "visible minority" they are hidden and not easily identified. Veterans, like immigrants, or the undocumented, or other groups need encouragement and doors opened. They need sensitive and proactive processes.
For example, I am going to pursue adding the population of veterans and their families as a evaluation criterion for the grants my employer the California Community Foundation makes. Just adding those words and a little help in understanding why, will shift the perspectives and outreach of all of our grantees.
When we realize that all members of our communities are connected and that our fates are tied together. We support diversity, by understanding differences, by actively reaching out to learn about and include visible and invisible peoples, including out veterans. Then will we be more inclusive.
Thanks for reading. John