What if I was the minority? What would that experience be like?
I explored this question in the context of my choice to immerse myself in different cultures and serve under-represented groups in senior organizational leadership through nonprofit service. The learning has been eye-opening, rewarding, and transformational. It has helped me clarify why, who, and how I wanted to serve our one global community through coaching, and strengths-focused people and organizational development.
In January 2011, a friend asked me if I was interested in attending a board meeting for the local chapter of ALPFA (Association for Latino Professionals for America), the Latino nonprofit organization on which she served. I had heard her speak often and glowingly about the chapter President, Jason, the group, and she knew of my passion for people and organizational development, so it seemed like an opportunity worth exploring.
At the time, I was feeling restless professionally. I had this craving to contribute strategically and was not finding these opportunities in my job. I was in a people development role I enjoyed, though I needed something more. I sought opportunities to contribute, learn, and grow as I served others in their personal and professional development. I volunteered with several internal leadership development and diversity-focused employee network groups to expand my network, better understand the challenges people from different cultures face in the workplace, and to learn more about the cultural distinctions within these cultures. Something within me was searching for a bigger why, for a larger purpose where I could bring all of my talents and contribute through these so that I could grow as I helped others grow. My choice to attend this ALPFA DC Board meeting on January 22, 2011 became an important milestone on this journey.
At the Board meeting, I met many amazingly talented people I now call friends. They have expanded my perspective, helped me connect with my truth, and gain clarity of purpose on how to live it. Choosing to immerse myself in this culturally-based service and leadership development organization came easy. I wanted to learn about the different cultures, their traditions, their sources of pride, their challenges, their uniqueness, and their commonality within the Latino community. I wanted to understand how I might bring my talents to best serve this community. I soon felt the reality of "be careful what you wish for".
I remember attending the ALPFA National Convention in California in August of 2011, and the excitement I felt on the flight in anticipation of the event. I had been with the DC chapter for six months and was now attending this huge event with thousands of Latinos from across the United States. The energy, enthusiasm, and passion within this community to be with each other for the shared purpose of Building Latino Leaders was inspiring. My excitement dimmed some as reality hit me. While among friends and colleagues, in this wonderfully positive environment, I was the minority. Not surprisingly, Spanish was the preferred language of the Convention attendees. However, being in this environment where I did not fluently speak the language of the group left me feeling disconnected and out of place.
The reality was extremely disconcerting, stressful, and eye-opening. It was only a tiny glimpse into the world of being the minority, the smallest of microcosms, yet it was a powerful awakening to the minority perspective. How would I fit in?
The ALPFA community is so friendly, accepting, and inclusive. I have experienced this, felt it, and it is one of the things I most appreciate about being a member of this wonderful community. At the ALPFA Convention, I felt differently, like an outsider, not because of being intentionally excluded by others, but because of my thoughts, and my choices. I was overwhelmed. Rather than choosing in the moment to be curious, and embrace this as an opportunity, I chose to withdraw, allowing my feelings of being different, not fitting in, or being an outsider to drive how I showed up. These thoughts triggered the stories and insecurities that were in my head about being different and not fitting in with this community. The realities of the situation were true; my distinction was different from the Latino community attending this Convention. My interpretation of those realities led me to create this story built on the insecurity I was feeling. What if I had chosen instead to write a different story? What if I had chosen to get curious about the people I was meeting, adopt a learner's mindset, to seek to understand others' interests, their passions, and what brought them to the Convention? What if I allowed myself to be vulnerable?
I come at this not from a place of self-judgment. As I reflect upon the experience and the learning, I embrace the learning, enlightenment, and growth that has come from it. I made a choice to focus on what was missing or different grounded in the lens of my insecurities. Instead, what if I had focused on the similarities first? What if I had chosen to smile, say hello, and introduce myself to more people? After all, everyone smiles in the same language, right? I was unable to see these options because I had been triggered by my own insecurities, and had shut off access to my internal resources, to my strengths, and to seeing these possibilities. I went into the familiar comfort of the self-protective zone. While this space may have provided the mirage of safety temporarily, it did not allow me to bring my best self, nor allow others to get to know the true me. Have you ever felt this way?
My distinctions as a Caucasian male who grew up in the suburbs of New York City were so different than my Latino friends and colleagues. There was fear in not knowing how to be, how to fit in with this wonderful community. As I embraced the discomfort and learned more about my new friends, and colleagues, their interests, traditions, and passions, I began to see with new eyes. I began to let go of the self-protectant mindset which shut me down, when inside, what I really wanted was to open up, connect, and learn more about the people in this community. There has always seemed to be this internal struggle between what my heart wanted and what my head led me to do. As someone who spent his life until then mostly in my head, I had become disconnected from my feelings. Living in self-protective mode, I resisted being vulnerable. I was therefore unable to pay attention to what my feelings were telling me and to choose to act on this intelligence so I could be congruent with it.
I share this from a place of confident vulnerability. I am grateful for this experience and my journey since then. Since early childhood, I have always thought of my friends of color as simply my friends. In that sense I have always been color-blind. There was never any labelling such as my Latino, Asian, or African-American friends. What I have been so blessed to learn, and this journey is ongoing, is the value of diversity, not just from our different shades but from the uniqueness and richness represented in each person's story.
We are each uniquely strong, and bring our own special story and blend of talents to contribute in all aspects of our life. We need to both celebrate our uniqueness, and appreciate the same in others. Difference is not bad. It is simply a wonderful story you may not have heard yet. What if you got curious about another person's story? We don't know what we don't know, and sometimes our lens leaves us blind to this. I see newness differently now. Newness stimulates our brains. That is why insatiable learners and travelers can never get enough. New experiences, new insights, new people are that tasty spice for greater learning, acceptance, and growth towards building our one global community.
The last point is the most important. One global community. A world where we each bring our unique talents to serve us as we serve others.
We all have our own cultural, generational, gender-based, and situational differences and influences. When we embrace who we are and who we are not, and accept others similarly, we create the space for becoming one global community of human beings. That's where we all started, as vulnerable, loving, caring, curious human beings needing the support and love of others. This is what we can become. One interdependent community of human beings who accept themselves and each other for their uniquely special distinctions, talents, and contributions.
What if our language, thoughts, and behaviors valued what is unique about each of us, grounded in our similarities as human beings? What would be different for you? What would be different for our one global community?
Be Bold. Be You. Breakthrough.℠