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More than a buzzword

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology was founded on the belief that multicultural awareness and cultural sensitivity are essential to the successful practice of professional psychology.

But the definition of diversity three decades ago has changed as much as the world around us. Where do we go from here, as an institution and as a society? How do we foster a new diversity that encompasses all views, all cultures, all religions, and all identities? The journey starts inside each of us.

When three Muslim students from the University of North Carolina were shot and killed last year, a young Lebanese Muslim came into an office on The Chicago School’s Los Angeles Campus in tears. The student worker, who wore a traditional hijab and had softly requested to step outside to pray five times during her work day, was in a state of panic—terrified that expressing her cultural and religious identity would make her a target for hate.

“Her parents didn’t want her to come to work because they were afraid someone would attack her,” explains Jean Grant, former associate vice president for advancement at TCSPP’s Southern California Campuses, adding that she comforted the young woman as best she could and allowed her to leave early that day. “Later she wrote me a card and said, ‘Thank you for your reaction of immediate compassion. I was so shocked that you instantly understood what I was feeling.’”

Grant said that experience gave her a jarring new perspective on “diversity” in the 21st century.

Because as much as the word has become ubiquitous in everything from the current U.S. presidential election to Fortune 500 company best practices, its definition has morphed and changed multiple times since being introduced into the American lexicon in the 1980s.

It’s a buzzword. It’s a quota. It’s a series of checked boxes on a job application. It’s the latest addition to the “C” suite of corporate officers. But what does diversity mean, exactly? In a world where people self-identify on multiple levels—from race and religion to gender, sexuality, and even dietary choices—the word has become as muddled as it is mandatory.

“Diversity is so much more than skin color,” says Grant, who recalls discussing the need to redefine and expand the idea of diversity with The Chicago School President Michele-Nealon Woods at a luncheon last year. “For me, diversity is a bunch of moving parts that are different and changing all the time. There is nothing static about it.”

Understanding and embracing diversity has been a fundamental component of The Chicago School’s mission for more than three decades. Fostering a belief that multicultural awareness and cultural sensitivity are essential to the successful practice of professional psychology, The Center for Multicultural and Diversity Studies (CMDS) was chartered to build an environment of mutual respect and inclusion where all individuals are valued.

But as Dr. Breeda McGrath, dean of academic affairs at TCSPP’s Online Campus, explains, the pursuit of a true, nuanced understanding of diversity is a work in progress—something that needs to continue to evolve, at the university and in society.

“When you start talking about diversity as an international psychologist, you have to be much more inclusive in terms of what you mean,” says Dr. McGrath, who grew up in Ireland and travels extensively in her work for The Chicago School’s International Psychology Program.

“Diversity is a very U.S. word, but in other countries various other words are used because the concept may be framed differently. What is diversity? Is it an action? It is a noun or a verb? There is no agreement on this.”

Cover Story_V3-2After supervising CMDS for several years, Dr. McGrath went on to support the President’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Diversity at The Chicago School. She also participated in a diversity audit of all campuses, to get accurate statistics on the demographics of both employees and students—an exercise she says sparked some difficult conversations about reality versus perception.

Some positive things came from these efforts, including the creation of a unisex bathroom on the Chicago Campus for transgender or gender neutral students. Dr. McGrath and her colleagues also went beyond diversity on campus to explore how faculty and alumni should be advocates as psychologists—hosting a Town Hall forum on the Chicago Campus to discuss the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin and the impact on race relations in America.

Through it all, she came back to the same conclusion—the word “diversity” as we know it in American society needs to evolve. The politically correct notion of diversity for diversity’s sake is no longer enough. Hiring a diverse staff based on a list of labels and checked boxes means nothing without inclusion, understanding, and acceptance. Moreover, Dr. McGrath says the authentic values of diversity must be more than words on a mission statement.

“Diversity comes from inside,” she says. “A person who really believes in diversity and equality and respect needs to be able to tell you the last time they had a personal bias, and what they did about it. If someone hasn’t acknowledged a moment in the last six months when they have checked their own feelings and actions, then they’re not currently working on embracing diversity. You have to engage in self-awareness. Otherwise, it’s just lip service. You’re just holding placards.”

Daniel Esquivel, student success specialist in Student Affairs, contributed to The Chicago School’s ongoing diversity mission by spearheading LGBTQ “safe zone” training on campuses nationwide.

“It started as a three-hour faculty training to provide a foundation of knowledge,” explains Esquivel, who identifies himself as a gay, Latino, first-generation American. “After our first session, we got a lot of student interest as well, which opened another level of engagement around the issues.”

While life as a gay or lesbian student is easier than it may have been two decades ago, Esquivel sees an emerging need at The Chicago School to better serve the transgender community. “I know we are taking the steps to fully integrate transgender students into our campuses, but there is still more work to do both on campus and in society at large,” he says.

Like Dr. McGrath, Esquivel believes true diversity is only attainable when we look inside ourselves and be honest about our own biases and viewpoints.

“Historically, when someone says diversity, people auto-matically think about race. We need to shift the paradigm so that skin color or cultural identity are not the only considerations for diversity,” Esquivel says. “We have a spectrum of identities that we all carry with us, whether visible or not.”

As a former ADA coordinator for students with disabilities, Esquivel says his eyes were opened to what he calls “hidden diversity.”

“I can count on one hand the number of students utilizing wheelchairs. I don’t have enough hands to count the number of students with mental illness or a learning disability,” Esquivel says. “My job in student affairs is to make sure that our institution, in addition to being a premier school of psychology, is also leading the way in best practices for inclusion.”

Diversity in America comes with a complex history loaded with prejudice and injustice. For that reason, the word itself has baggage. Associate Professor Braden Berkey sees evidence of this every year when new students come to his two-part “Diversity in Clinical Psychology” course at the Chicago Campus.

“Students are required to take a full year of this course, and they’re not always happy about it,” Dr. Berkey says. “They come in thinking we’re going to talk about black people’s experiences and marginalization, and that’s where they stop.”

From the first day of class, Dr. Berkey challenges his students to start reflecting on their own identity and biases. “The first semester is very introspective,” he says, explaining that students keep detailed journals. “I ask them where they hold privilege, how they are marginalized, and what internal prejudices they have that have never been examined before.”

As future psychology professionals, Dr. Berkey says this self-examination is critical. Because just as each student brings their own individual experience and cultural viewpoint, they are also existing and practicing in the culture of psychology.

“The APA has a value system and guidelines,” he explains. “So we are trying to craft a space where people can agree to disagree but also comply with APA ethics and a social justice perspective that is necessary in the practice of psychology.”

With bold in-class discussions and field trips to cultural events in Chicago, there can be roadblocks and obstacles to overcome. But there are also many breakthroughs.

Dr. Berkey, who has been a core faculty member in the Clinical Psy.D. Program since 2008, recalls the case of an Orthodox Jewish student who couldn’t make some of the class excursions because of conflicts with Jewish holidays. To accommodate her, he suggested she view the film, “12 Years A Slave,” and share her views.

“She had heard all the noise and rhetoric about slavery growing up, and compared it to Jewish people’s persecution,” he says. “But she came away with a whole different perspective on how slavery continues to impact people to this day.”

These are exactly the kinds of experiences Dr. Berkey and Dr. McGrath believe are necessary and critical—not only for The Chicago School community but for the community of psychology professionals being trained to serve an increasingly diverse, multicultural society.

“Diversity is not that we sit on our nice, comfortable campus and talk theoretically about these issues,” he says. “As psychologists, we’re going to have clients who have different religious and cultural views that have to be respected. We can’t make it our agenda to change people.”

Dr. Jaleel Abdul-Adil, a part-time professor of psychology at The Chicago School, knows firsthand the level of fear and prejudice Jean Grant’s young student worker expressed.

“Being a practicing Orthodox Muslim, especially with the current political environment in the U.S., adds a new dimension to the conversation around diversity that is more salient and raw,” explains Dr. Abdul-Adil, an African American man who was raised as a southern Baptist but converted later in life. “Different aspects of my identity should be congruent, but are often called into conflict. When political issues or tragic events occur, it’s the challenge you face—are you a Muslim or are you an American? Where does your loyalty lie?”

He considers himself lucky because of his academic status and access to resources not available in underserved communities.

“I think of myself as an advocate for the voiceless,” Dr. Abdul-Adil says. “Part of that is creating opportunities in the classroom for difficult dialogue around how aspects of identity need support. It can’t be a trendy thing. It can’t be a buzzword. It has to be authentic.”

The Chicago School’s journey to help foster a more diverse, inclusive world is far from over. Grant’s young Muslim student worker still causes her to think, and to continually question her own perspective. As Dr. McGrath says, that questioning—the constant state of self-reflection and examination—is how diversity becomes more than a buzzword. It becomes a force, positively impacting people’s everyday interactions out in the world.

“Our perspective on the world needs to change as the context changes,” Dr. McGrath says. “Every time I meet new people and am open to learning from them, I am changed. I commit to continuously evolving my perspective on our global family. To me, that’s what diversity is really about.”


Find more articles from this issue of Insight here.