Constructing an atmosphere for diversity and mission success

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. John Hughel
  • 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Amid the hustle and bustle of a unit training assembly (UTA) weekend here, a group of 25 or so Airmen energetically file into an open classroom and begin to arrange chairs in a semi-circle as Maj. Lisa M. Scott warmly greets them.

Cutting through the commotion of the boisterous gathering, Scott catches the room's attention, raising her voice just enough to quiet the group and corral their attention.

"I know everyone has been busy all weekend, so kudos to all of you for taking the extra time to be here this afternoon," said Scott, the Equal Opportunity Director for the 142nd Fighter Wing.

As the group settles into chairs, Scott initiates the monthly meeting of the 142nd Fighter Wing's Diversity and Inclusion Counsel by having everyone in attendance briefly introduce themselves. The simple gesture helps them create a cohesive atmosphere on the topic of the meeting: respect in the work place - a subject that crosses over gender, race, age and sexual orientation considerations. 

The idea for this particular Diversity and Inclusion Counsel meeting was the brain child of the counsel's co-chairs, Tech. Sgt. Carl Green and Airman 1st Class Michelle Johnson. 

"We truly get at the heart of diversity to foster dignity and respect for all, and help equip folks with tools to remove barriers in their work centers, enabling them to work alongside one another to solve issues, and to become effective change agents," Green said.

Green and Johnson are part of a group of committed Airmen on base that has revitalized the Diversity and Inclusion Counsel, encouraging some of the changes on base within the Department of Defense (DoD) policies over the past several years.

"What I like about the work the [Diversity and Inclusion] counsel is doing, is that is it run by the Airmen and has been a grass roots organization," said Col. Paul T. Fitzgerald, 142nd Fighter Wing Commander.

"It makes sense to me that the counsel is focusing on communication, especially so when talking about diversity where preconceptions or what has occurred in the past can have an effect on this organization and how to move forward in the presence," he said.

Understanding begins with communication

During this particular meeting of the base's Diversity and Inclusion Counsel, the group begins a session on fresh methods to better understand authentic and respectful communication. Alan Winter and Joan Levine are leading the discussion and are recognized facilitators and mediators with The Compassionate Listening Project based here in the Pacific Northwest.

"When we begin to listen, we reopen and strengthen communication pathways back to our hearts... particularly when we are upset or in the heat of conflict," said Levine, as she stressed the importance of compassionate listening.

For a new perspective to emerge, Winter specified that it requires both speaking and listening from the heart. "It is opening yourself up to the other person; listening without interrupting, judging or giving advice, truly listening to the other person for their benefit," he said.

To illustrate how individuals come from particular environments that have shaped their perspectives, the group was broken up into pairs for a one-on-one experiment. Winter explained how one person was to talk while the other listened without interruption, adding "the number one tenet here is to not judge someone."

Attentiveness, eye contact and other body language tactics were encouraged during the test. As both members had a chance to talk and listen, the interactions in the room took on a tranquil tone.

As the test concluded, members quickly began subsequent conversations or shared a laugh to lighten the moment, filling in the gaps from a subtle yet powerful form of interaction.

"This type of listening and speaking can be used in any kind of relationship, it's a way of not running from conflict," said Winter, as he brought the group back together for follow-up discussions. "It helps make it easier to understand someone else's story when you have walked a mile in their moccasins."

Inclusion as part of the solution 

As important as revisiting communication models can be to help improve traditional workplace issues, fundamental shifts in the military have taken place in recent years to illuminate the need for inclusion.

Integrating members of the military along the lines of sexual orientation has been a long-time advancement towards inclusion, following the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) military policy.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 2, 2010, Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff addressed why it was time to end DADT: "No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," he said.

Mullen continued by reaffirming that the military would "accommodate such a change" in policy. "...It comes down to integrity - theirs as individuals and ours as an institution." 

Since the repeal was enacted four years ago, the open integration of gay and lesbian troops has continued to evolve both on a national and unit level.  As recently as June 9, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that gay and lesbian servicemembers will be protected by the equal opportunity policy allowing safeguards of inclusion for all troops. 

"Recognizing that our openness to diversity is one of the things that has allowed us to be the best in the world, we must ensure that everyone who's able and willing to serve has the full and equal opportunity to do so," said Carter, while speaking at a ceremony at the Pentagon during LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Pride month.

"The Department of Defense has made a lasting commitment to living the values we defend -- because we need to be a meritocracy," he said.

Echoing Defense Secretary's sentiments, Scott said, "This is great news. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, he [Defense Secretary Ash] walks the walk."

Just two short years ago - on June 8, 2013 - that the Portland Air National Guard Base hosted an LGBT potluck event, becoming the first unit tied to LGBT awareness in the National Guard.

"There was a chance when we planned this event that we might be ahead of the Air Force and policy issues," said Fitzgerald. "People felt included, they felt that we honestly cared about them as individuals and not their orientation. If you look at how seamlessly we have been operating since then, I think that tells the best story," he said.

Removing barriers for future generations 

As successful as ending DADT has been, new challenges still confront Airmen into the future. Generational issues, gender and other artificial barriers still continue to be on the forefront for leadership with regards to policy changes and force shaping.

Speaking before the "Women and Leadership in National Security" conference in March, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James emphasized the importance for a diverse total force: "Diversity and inclusion help us become more strategically agile. Progress has been made, but we (the Air Force) can do better."

Secretary James announced nine initiatives to boost the careers of women and minorities in the service to include improvements in mentorship programs, diversity and inclusion perspectives for developing team boards, and increasing female officer application participation among others. 

Retaining and attracting the most innovated Airmen will require diversity and inclusion requirements with the support of field development team chairs, James said. "Specifically, we will be asking them to conduct analyses to address barriers that may be now preventing some of our Airmen from reaching their highest levels of performance," she said.

How these macro changes will affect Airmen of the 142nd will be seen over time. Yet Fitzgerald feels that the unit is already on the right path. He pointed out that the Wing's vice commander and Mission Support Group commander positions are both currently led by two outstanding female officers.

"Generations are different from when I entered the Air Force 25 years ago. The organization [Air Force] has become flatter in the sense that people will step forward with good ideas and present them in a positive manner to senior leaders," Fitzgerald said.

Factor in today's technology with social media, smart phones and email, and the questions and feedback loop becomes even shorter.

"It's not uncommon that nowadays people will email the [Air Force] Chief of Staff of the Air Force and tell him directly what they think about a certain policy," Fitzgerald said. "When I got into the Air Force this would never had happened."

As the mission tempo and other modifications within the Air Force transpire over time, Airmen and leaders will continue to look for opportunities to develop a pathway for the future.

In regards to mentorship and inclusion by leadership, Fitzgerald stated that "Our leaders are being inclusive; they are celebrating our diversity, doing so with the right mindset of accomplishing the mission and improving the total force."