Align Cultural Diversity to the Community You Serve

Dr. Maura Cullen opened the second day of the SAWA Annual Conference with a discussion on diversity, “Align Cultural Diversity to the Community You Serve.” Dr. Cullen holds a doctorate in Social Justice and Diversity Education and is an experienced instructor and speaker.

Dr. Cullen emphasized two points during her lively talk:

  1. The words you use have impact, and there may be a big gulf between what is intended in a conversation versus the impact of that discussion on the people involved.
  2. Conversations about and with diverse groups, and how, when and if they’re conducted, can impact an organization. Potential employees and customers may leave or not come to an organization at all if they feel their experience isn’t reflected in its staff, and/or if they feel they won’t be understood because of language, culture or other barriers.

Dr. Cullen started her session with an exercise. She asked everyone in the room to find a few partners and tell them about a few issues in their lives, at the same time. The room became very loud.

The goal of the exercise was to emphasize what she sees as common in many conversations about diversity – too much talking about your own experience, and not enough listening to others.

Dr. Cullen then offered some pointers on how to have more productive conversations about diversity, and how to create a more inclusive environment:

Don’t be afraid of having the conversation

Cullen noted that “if we opt out, we cop out” when it comes to discussions about racial, cultural, gender and sexual orientation differences. Not being open to conversations is worse than having them, even if they’re awkward, because ignoring them makes people feel alienated.

If they feel excluded, or that their issues aren’t important enough to discuss, they’ll leave. This applies to employees, potential employees and potential adopters: “The conversations we aren’t having are as detrimental as the ones we are having. We stay in silos and tend to spend time with people who look and think like us.”

Manage emotions and stress

Working in animal welfare can be stressful for many reasons. Dr. Cullen noted that stress can lead us to be more dismissive of other people and that “hurt people hurt people.” She also explained the “pile on principle.” Because we never know exactly what is happening in the life of someone else, the way we talk to them, if not done respectfully, can feel like “piling on” to an already difficult set of circumstances.

She offered a three-step framework for approaching difficult conversations: B.A.R.

  • Breathe
  • Acknowledge
  • Respond

Using this approach encourages you to take a deep breath, and think, before responding. It encourages more reflection and less reaction.

Have courage and be thoughtful

Dr. Cullen encouraged everyone to allow for difficult conversations with people who may be different. Having these conversations around difference may be hard at first, but if you have them often enough, they don’t seem so awkward.

Being mindful of what you’re saying is also critical: “There are a lot of things we can multitask, but the one thing we need to focus is our communication style.”

Dr. Cullen then shared some of her favorite “things well-intended people say” but shouldn’t:

Some of my best friends are…
I know exactly how you feel…
I don’t think of you as…
That happens to me too…
Where are you really from?

Dr. Cullen advised people to think twice before using these phrases because, while they may be well-intended, they may have negative impact on the people listening. She emphasized that the difference between the intent of a conversation versus the impact of the content of that conversation is critical to communication, especially in discussions with people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Although some of these phrases are meant to reach out to people to find a shared experience, they can be insensitive and demeaning to someone on the other end of the conversation.

Check your privilege

Dr. Cullen ended her presentation with a call to all of us to think about our own privilege and to treat people equitably. She quoted Barry Switzer: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

Treating people “equitably” is better than treating people “equally.” She noted that we’re not all equal, and some have more than others. But we should all try to create opportunity for everyone to have a chance to compete.

Dr. Cullen illustrated this idea by sharing an example of giving everyone in the room a pair of shoes. In one scenario, everyone would get the same pair of shoes – a size 7 women’s – to treat people equally. In the next scenario, everyone would get a pair of shoes in their own size. This is a more equitable solution because, in shoes as in life, one size does not fit all.

Overall, Dr. Cullen’s presentation emphasized that diversity and inclusiveness should be everyone’s goal. Shelter clients and customers are diverse and face different challenges. Reflecting on that experience, and working to better understand it through listening and inclusive hiring, are steps in the right direction.


This article was written live during the 2015 Annual Society of Animal Welfare Administrators Conference. This post reflects our bloggers’ understanding of the session and the materials shared by presenters.

The Association is the only international society of leaders actively leading and managing community animal shelters/animal control agencies.

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