April 2016: Embracing Cross-Cultural Diversity

Perspectives from the Field, Part II
Throughout the 2016 seminar year, the LNJ staff  will ask two class members to reflect on their experiences following the monthly two-day seminars. The perspectives will change each month to include a wide spectrum of view points and expertise.

For more information visit our website at www.leadnj.org.


mark(Main Gallery at the Visual Arts Center located in Summit, New Jersey)

LeadNJ 2016 Embracing Cross-Cultural Diversity Seminar
13-14, 2016
Summit & Morristown, NJ 
By: Shabnam Salih

Being comfortable in the uncomfortable – The two days of LNJ’s “Diversity and Inclusion” seminar reiterated the importance of this notion to me – the notion that we as leaders have a responsibility to engage and overcome levels of professional and personal discomfort that undoubtedly raises as we have difficult but meaningful conversations about diversity and inclusion. “Diversity and Inclusion” is a trending topic in workplaces across sectors, educational and healthcare institutions and other social institutions in our smaller and larger communities today. But what exactly does it mean and why is it important?

These were just some of the questions LNJ 2016 Fellows got a chance to consider at our April seminar on the topic over our two days of speakers, discussions and activities while in Summit and Morristown. We covered a variety of topics from workplace diversity to Islamaphobia and the speakers were varied and impressive; for the full agenda see here. Hands down, I thought, and I heard this reaffirmed by others, that this was the best session we experienced thus far.

The topic is either personal to you or if it is not, you were intellectually challenged to think about the reasons, especially when, as we learned, the impact of a deeper understanding is so important to the success of people, programs, organizations, communities and everything else around us.

Not only was the experience intellectually challenging and engaging, I learned a few important things about leadership that I have outlined below:

  • We are stronger organizations, teams, companies, leaders, etc. if we are more diverse and inclusive of others; and when we are, we make better decisions, produce better outcomes and deliver better work.
  • It’s okay to be uncomfortable. I as a leader should embrace the discomfort and forge through with honesty, humility and an open mind.
  • Be confident and accept that I am human and not perfect. But I will embrace my responsibility to be the best version of myself by working through prejudices, biases and unconscious biases.

Through the 2-day seminar, I had an opportunity to be introspective and reflect on how to improve myself not only as a professional and community member, but also as a leader. We lead by example and this seminar highlighted not only our opportunity but also our responsibility as leaders to do so, especially when the topics and issues become less popular.


(LNJ ’16 at the Church of the Redeemer located in Morristown, New Jersey)

Lead NJ –  Diversity Seminar
April 2016
By: Steven Ramiza

While some of my classmates suggested that I was chosen to pen this month’s blog because Jen is trying to keep me off my phone, I like to think there was more to it.  Nonetheless, as I look back to some of the previous months where I had very strong opinions, this was a much more challenging topic to attack.  It’s never easy to discuss cross-cultural diversity in any setting, let alone in a group as diverse as ours.

Our classmate Melanie Cohn of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey was kind enough to host us this month.  I’m embarrassed to think that, although I grew up not too far away and married a woman from the neighboring town, I had never heard of it.  The building was beautiful (albeit really cold)!  Curator Mary Birmingham welcomed us and provided a sneak preview of “Recharging the Image: Selections from the Mott-Warsh Collection”.  This was also the first of many times over our two days together that we heard the phrase “E pluribus unum” or “Out of many, one”.

Mark then gave his typical intro, complete with dramatic pauses J, and challenged us to think about “what is it to be an American” and “who actually decides”.  Unlike everywhere else in the world, where the definition is based on your country of origin, we base it on a set of principles.

Next, Elizabeth Williams-Riley from the American Conference on Diversity, talked about the “fabric” of diversity and how prejudice can be “unlearned” since it is learned.  She defined diversity with four points: 1. who we are, 2. what you learned, 3. how you lead, and 4. how you interact.  Following her talk, Elizabeth took us outside for the “Privilege Walk”.  As I stood there standing hand-in-hand and shoulder-to-shoulder with my classmates, it was immediately clear where the exercise was going to go.  My gut reaction was that I’d end up somewhere in the front third.  But as my hand slipped from my partner as I stepped forward and she stepped back, I wondered “am I really that privileged”?  I certainly never felt like I had a difficult childhood growing up, but I also never felt “privileged”.  I struggled to look back at my classmates a few times and had that weird feeling in my gut when I realized I was one of the ones closest to the front as the exercise concluded.  I also thought about my children; my wife and I often jokingly comment how spoiled they are and how much better of a life they have from us.  But now, standing at the front of the group, it really hit me.  I like to think that my wife and I teach them to appreciate what they have, but now, more than ever, I hope that I can really show that to them that as they get older.

After returning to the gallery, Lawrence Hibbert of BCT Partners and Rita Mitjans of ADP led a discussion on “unconscious bias”, micro-aggressions, and exclusionary behaviors.  There was a lot of good commentary, questions, and observations from the group.

After lunch, we turned to a topic that is probably the most talked about right now, yet least understood; Islam.  Dr. Mohammad Ali Chaudry of The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, and Atiya Aftab, Esq. of Rutgers provided some fascinating commentary into the world of Islam and the struggles that they continue to face on a regular basis.  I was touched by Ms. Aftab’s recollection of her young children during 9/11 and equally touched by Dr. Ali Chaudry’s ongoing challenges to build a mosque in his hometown.  I encourage everyone to read this recent NYT article to learn more about his efforts.  Looking at my notes, my last comment on this session was “lots of learnings from the group – clearly we are all uneducated on this topic”…

We concluded the day with a fantastic “keynote” address from Anne-Marie Slaughter of New America.  Ms. Slaughter has an incredibly interesting (and impressive) background and was the perfect person to wrap up the first day.  She spoke about “Leading as…’leaning in’, ‘leaning on’, and ‘gardening’”.  I found it sadly fitting that we were only a day past “Equal Pay Day”, the day each year that symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.  I would have loved to hear her thoughts on this.  What I enjoyed most though was Ms. Slaughter’s take on family and work-life balance.  She was brutally honest in speaking about the typical parenting struggles of raising kids.  Later that night, I found a great article from Politico about a “dispute” between Ms. Slaughter and a Secretary Clinton; I highly recommend it, especially after hearing Anne-Marie’s take on the subject.

The next morning we were welcomed to the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown by Cynthia (“don’t call me reverend, father, or mother”) Black.  She provided some fascinating facts on the church, including being the first to host an AA event and the history of the Eric Johnson “AIDS House” and how they grew to become a true “host” to the LGBT crowd.  Fittingly, I also volunteered a few times at their soup kitchen back in my teenage years, and was shocked to hear that they are serving 60,000+ meals/year!

The first panel included a group of four very diverse people.  Jefrey Vega from the Princeton Area Community Foundation, Johanna Calle from the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, Michele Ford from Inroads to Opportunities, and Prashanti Vasagiri from Manavi. These four are all doing fantastic work for the people of New Jersey!

The last panel was a very raw discussion on race issues in the African American community.  Both Junius Williams, Esq. of Rutgers and James Golden of the Trenton Police Department (amongst other things) shared personal stories on race relations and really made me think about how many facets of race relations really haven’t changed in the last fifty years.  I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to think about all the progress that has been made (and there has been), but I walked away feeling like there is so much more to do.  I asked Mr. Golden a question about the MOVE events in Philadelphia in 1985.  He was a member of the PPD during the incident and was happy to have been assigned desk duty on that fateful day.  Mr. Golden assumed that everyone was familiar with the story, but for those who aren’t, or would like to learn more, NPR ran a great article last year for the 30th anniversary.

Our last agenda item was a group exercise where we were given little to no instruction on what we needed to do, but somehow both groups had very similar discussions and conclusions on diversity that can best be summed up as “getting to really know one another”.

I left Morristown with no answers, and more questions than I came with.  But I also felt a glimpse of hope, specifically from something one of my classmates said.  Lyneir Richardson commented on what he saw as a potential optimistic “evolution” of diversity and acceptance.  He talked about how his father felt impacted by race on a daily (or even hourly basis), but that he only felt it on a weekly basis.  And that his son probably only feels it monthly now.  Maybe it was a sign that we are all growing closer to “one”.  His comments stuck with me more than anything else I heard in those two days.  I hope Lyneir gets a chance to read this; I need his address for that dinner he invited me to…





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