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Diversity: ‘It’s time to face facts’
Instructor uses humor, personal experience to break the ice
Pedestrians and motorists cross the intersection of Ivy and Alderman roads.
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
U.Va. police routinely patrol the Grounds in cars, on bike and on foot. Here, pedestrians and motorists cross the intersection of Ivy and Alderman roads.

By Matt Kelly

Steven Birdine showed the University Police the humor of diversity.

Birdine, 44, president and chief executive officer of Indianapolis-based Affirmations in Action, used jokes, exaggeration and personal history, coupled with exercises and discussions, to present diversity in a nonthreatening way on March 4-5 at the Darden School. He used the make-up of each group — black, white, Asian, men, women, young and old — to show the different levels on which people relate. Men, both black and white, may share some common emotions about women, or they may follow the same sports teams.

“Diversity has nothing to do with niceness,” Birdine told his audience. “If you leave the house looking to be offended, then you will be offended. And if you live your life afraid of offending other people, then you aren’t going to please anybody.”

People look at the world through what is familiar to them and stereotypes, he said. And being fearful of offending reduces communication.

“If you don’t see my color, you don’t see me,” Birdine told the officers. “I’ve been places where I am the only black guy in a room full of white people, somebody comes looking for me, they’re scared to say, ‘He’s the black guy.’ We are scared to talk to each other. We need an open and honest conversation.”

A professional diversity educator and motivational speaker, Birdine said he wants people to be better at their jobs, and humor helps his message.

“That relaxes them, opens them to sharing, lets them know it’s OK to disagree,” he said. “We won’t agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Birdine led the group of about 20 officers and staff on a series of exercises, including listing stereotypes of various groups, a diversity quiz and dividing the officers into groups to determine who, from a preselected list, should survive a nuclear war. From a list of 15 men and women of different races, ages, skills and religions, the officers had to select seven survivors and explain their reasons.

“Our objective is to have people more sensitive than they would otherwise be,” said Police Chief Paul Norris, who had worked with Birdine at Indiana University, where Norris had also been police chief. “It is not to have everybody agree, but just be more sensitive to the way the other person thinks.”

Birdine’s talk was the opening round of what Norris sees as ongoing diversity training for his department, using University people for future sessions. About 60 police officers and staff attended one of three sessions Birdine held.

“There were some people who didn’t want to be here,” Norris said of his officers. “But as they were walking out, they were saying that it was excellent.”

Birdine said working with the different people rejuvenates his

“I enjoy the interaction, “ he said. “Some people are genuinely altered, others survive it.”


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