Area programs bridge cultural gap

November 7, 2008
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With the world becoming smaller, the gaps between cultures in the workplace often are becoming wider. Sonya Hughes, vice president of diversity initiatives at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, believes it is important for West Michigan to address cultural issues in the workplace as a region in order to secure the future of West Michigan’s economy.

“The Western Michigan Chamber Coalition (Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, Holland and Muskegon chambers) is really right now talking about what kinds of trainings are necessary to be successful as a region,” she said. “We don’t live and work only in our neighborhood anymore.”

The issue of diversity in West Michigan has been a struggle, as many people from outside the area have a perception of the region as being predominately white. Hughes argues that while that may once have been the case, things have changed.

“Fifteen, 20 years ago, we were trying to figure out how to invite diversity in. Diversity is here now,” she said. “It’s not even a question of whether it’s going to happen, or how do we get it here. It’s ‘Now, how do we utilize it to our advantage as a community and a business?’ First, we have to understand what we’ve not experienced.”

Hughes doesn’t have official numbers, but said the growth in workplace diversity is becoming obvious as more companies ask for diversity training.

“I’m receiving more calls of interest, saying, ‘What kind of training do you have that’s about culture and about diversity,’” said Hughes. “We’re just trying to make sure that we’re providing opportunities for education, so businesses can look at what their opportunities might be.”

The chamber has been offering the Institute for Healing Racism program since 1997, which has been very successful, and now has partnered with the Literacy Center of West Michigan to provide the Multicultural Workplace Training program that began earlier this year.

“This particular program has a more global look,” she said. “If you’re dealing with people outside of the United States, this is a tool for you — making sure there are no missteps due to culture or lack of information; that you don’t blow a deal because of a lack of cultural sensitivity.”

Kristin Ekkens is the program director of the Customized Workplace English program at the Literacy Center.

“What we do is bridge the gap with managers, supervisors and English-speaking coworkers, getting them to understand the cultural gap that’s occurring and what are some of the things they can do to close that gap,” said Ekkens.

“I think the most important thing about the entire training is that it gives people strategies they can use. They can walk out of the door and use these strategies to communicate with the foreign-born population,” said Ekkens. “This is the next step in diversity training. It really gets into why people from other cultures think the way they think.”

Many of the differences, Ekkens said, come from a mindset of “collectivism” versus “individualism.” Collectivism puts the group first and individualism puts the individual first. In a collectivist society, a person introduces the company they work for first, followed by their name. But in an individualist society, such as that of the United States, a person first states their name, followed by the name of their company.

Ekkens stressed that in order to close cultural gaps, there must be effort on both sides, not just the foreign-born.

“We don’t want it just to be about those language learners and having them put all the effort toward learning the language,” she said. “They can put hours and hours into language training, and if their managers don’t take one step toward them in bridging that gap, then it’s not going to help in the workplace.”

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