The Gift of Diversity: Up Close with Lewis Griggs
[note: originally published in (Next Step Magazine, Volume 3 No. 1, Summer 1998) - written By Norm Bond]
Although he fits the profile of the stereotypical, privileged white male, Lewis Griggs is a pioneer in the field of diversity. Here he shares his background and his thoughts about our society.
"I represent twelve generations, all Anglo blood since the 1600's, since the Mayflower...I was raised in class; the class of private education, Amherst BA, Stanford MBA, Episcopalian, registered Republican, like Scranton and Rockefeller. In fact, Scranton (Gov. William Scranton, PA) is a good friend of my father's. They were in the same class at Yale. As was Chuck Pillsbury, after whom my brother was named...I'm heterosexual. I'm married with two children, a girl and a boy...I've got my Lands End clothes, my Volvo wagon, and my Golden Retrievers...[But] I'm not just another white male," says Lewis Griggs from his San Francisco office.
If you are a person bound by biases and myths, Lewis Griggs may seem to be the poster child for the stereotypical, privileged white male. Instead, he has wandered far from his own demographic profile. Like many you rarely hear about, he "gets it." Griggs has a passion for diversity and has been a pioneer in the field since the early 1980's.
If you were to engage him in conversation, you would find that he is not the typical diversity consultant. Rather, he brings a unique perspective to the field. "I had to start from a different place," he says. "Everyone else had to start from a place of biculturalism, discrimination, oppression and whatever else they had to deal with. I never had any of those experiences- NOT ONE. I've only had the opposite experience." Griggs explains that he was raised among a group of people to whom any difference meant you were an outsider. "All it took to breakdown the capacity to relate to one another was any difference whatsoever. I didn't have to see that you were Black, female, Polish, Jewish or any of the obvious diversity characteristics. All you had to be was a second-generation Norwegian in Minneapolis or a fifth-generation German in St. Paul and you were still new, an immigrant, culturally different, not 100% one of me."
As a child, Griggs seldom interacted with other kids who were different. "I was about nine years old before I went to the home of a Jewish kid and spent the night. I wondered what that weird breakfast was they were giving me," he says with a laugh. "Everyone else was from the same Anglo blood, the same school, the same neighborhood and everything."
It was not until Griggs' arrival at Amherst in the mid-1960's when a feeling of exclusiveness led him to a new level of consciousness. Instantly there was diversity. Suddenly he was no longer the norm, but represented less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire student body. "Wow! It's kind of lonely to perceive oneself so separate, unique and different that you can't relate to anyone else," he reflects.
"It was a 180-degree turn. I met young, poor kids from New York City who were brilliant," he says. "I said to myself 'Oh my God! I am one of only three or four in the whole school that is exactly like me.' They [the other few] were the other white, Anglo yuppies. They weren't from St. Paul though, but they were still like me. The other people at Amherst were totally different. You may have thought 80% of them were white, but from my perspective, whew! This one was gay, that one was Jewish, the one over there was poor and another one was smart. This one was a musician and that one was an artist. This one was Polish and that one was Russian. And then this one was Black, that one was Hispanic, and this one was everything."
Standing still, Griggs remembers asking himself, "Where am I? Who am I? Where am I coming from and what on earth am I supposed to be and do?" He did not know. "So I spent almost a whole year, maybe two, standing right in my center, quite still. I didn't at all become my fullest self on campus. I stayed in my own self where it was safe, but I really looked and noticed and listened." He began to realize that superficial barriers were costing him special human experiences.
"Look at what was really happening between 1966 and 1970," he says. "Black males with fists in air were angry about racism. Women were angry at men about gender discrimination and sexism. And then there was Vietnam. So all I was hearing about was black upset-and-anger, and an international conflict about which I didn't know the truth."
His immersion in a different world at Amherst during an historic period of America engendered his mission to teach others about diversity, especially those who matched his demographic profile, those who didn't yet "get it."
There were a few experiences during Griggs' college years that made powerful impressions and gave similar messages. They were related to space. "We all need to not only have our own space where we can really be ourselves, but also when others are in it they should be made to feel comfortable, too" he explains.
In the first episode, Griggs mistakenly walked into a room where about 150 Black students were having a meeting. "I saw what I saw and thought, 'Well this is not the place I thought I was going,"' he says. "And I picked up energy in the room, which I could not have articulated then, but I can now. All I could do then was feel it! It was the following: 'Hi Lewis,' because they knew my name. 'It's OK. You are totally welcome to walk in the door. You will figure out very quickly that this isn't the place where we really need you. We're having something special here for us. So as soon as you can handle it, you can take whatever time it takes you to find the other door; to find your way out and locate the place you're really looking for.' Wow!" he adds. "I have never in my life, neither have you [Norm], been at a party of all white men and women who could possibly do that. With the energy of total welcome and clarity, say 'this isn't where you belong,' in a manner that grants you total space to find your way out while keeping you comfortable."
The second time where Griggs felt the welcome-and-have-your-space energy was during a party at an upscale discotheque in Boston. Black kids, educated and with "money" were having a good time. Griggs, his girlfriend and two other friends went to learn the popular dance called "The Bump." Griggs felt two things. "Not only did I feel everything I described from the other place, but also the non-verbal message, 'We're not going to ask you to leave, because legally you have the right to be here. We just want you to feel that this is a place where we are being who we really are. If you're comfortable with that, you're welcome to stay, but you'd better not be a gawker!"'
The third was at a gay place, gay across all races, in a large room. "But here they were much more clear,' says Griggs. "They actually said over the loud speaker, 'Hey! All you straight folks that are here, you're welcome be here. But I want you to know that this is our safe place to be. So don't be gawking and you can hang out."'
Griggs looks back at all three experiences and considers them valuable. He states, "You know there are different boundaries, which move, but I have learned the concept of what 'boundary' is and when allowed to participate within somebody else's space I've been blessed."
Barely Beyond Compliance
To Griggs, America has made a huge shift since the Civil Rights movement. "Over the past 300 years, we've done probably 10 to 100 times better in the last 30 years than we did in the previous 270," he says. "Equal Employment Opportunity, Affirmative Action, Fairness, Equity, all that sixties kid work has been critical and needed to be done. And most people and organizations are still doing it. In my opinion [however] most of the good progressive work now is not yet beyond that. It's not beyond compliance. It's not enough."
In his view, efforts to turn back and halt compliance are evidence that the work is inadequate. "Those who want to turn back from it are the ones who do it not for the best reasons. Rather, they do it because it's the law. And when the law changes, they don't have to do it. Or when the equity gets close enough and feels threatening, they've done enough. 'We've done enough for you people,' is what they say."
Griggs continues passionately, "For instance, one of those things that feels so powerful to me, is the EEO one. Here's what we have learned to do. I give you equal opportunity. Now if that's not enough, you feel frustration and internal anger - which you know how not to show. I have the righteousness, the power and the access - to be the one who thinks he can be so liberal - to give you equal opportunity. That alone, is a big conversation most people have never had.
"The part I love most is 'I give you equal opportunity.' That's all I say. You have equal opportunity. But what I never say, what none of us ever says, but you feel is that 'I give you equal opportunity to be like me - to speak like me, walk like me, talk like me, dress like me, understand me and become like me. And as soon as you can become one of me, i.e. 'American,' then I'll see your equality. The downside is that you spend 98% of your energy, every time you walk into my space, being like me so I feel safe. You do it in my restaurant, on my bus, in my airplane, in my school, in my store and in my office.'" That is an enormous amount of masking and a tiresome task.
"We white-male Americans, have been doing it when we've done international business, too" he says. "It's like 'Yeah, yeah, yeah... I know I have to be polite because I'm visiting your home. But you're speaking my language and you want to buy my widgets, so you'd better do things my way.' Well, finally that's beginning to stop, because the world is getting too competitive." America can not succeed if it can not have meaningful relationships across differences. "People will be happy to get those widgets somewhere else. So America is just beginning to get the global, cross cultural issues."
Although Griggs was a child of the sixties, he did not politically or professionally become driven by AA/EEO compliance. He supported it and understood why it was needed. But he says, "I am really trying to do only deep, personal spiritual work - interpersonal, human, soul work. You and I are one and connected and mostly the same. And whatever differences we have are either irrelevant at the moment or gifts to one another."
The Perfect World
Over the years Griggs has conducted countless seminars on understanding difference and has developed various training programs in print, audio, and video. Today, he continues to consult to Fortune 500 corporations and other large institutions. In his discussions, he talks about three areas we must focus on. "Each one of these three needs work," he says. "People need to notice which area they're working on right now. Just draw three circles overlapping like the Olympic circles. Recognize that one of these circles is Group/Cultural Differences, one is Individual Differences, and the third is Relationship Dynamics. All three are happening right now, in every relationship you're in- with your wife, children, sister, brother, employee, boss and client. Realize which one is causing the problem that is creating an uncomfortable situation."
Griggs elaborates with examples of women saying "it's sexism" and Blacks saying "it's racism." He explains, "But what we need to figure out when we sit down with that first-generation Vietnamese American [for instance] is what is the discomfort that's going on? Are you actually being racist, or is it a cultural difference in eye contact? Is it just a relationship dynamic? And when someone of a different racial group meets us, how far are we going to get if our first presumption is racism? Maybe it's individual difference, not group difference. Maybe, I'm just a weird shy, quiet nerd, and you're a brilliant personality that communicates. Maybe I'm gay, maybe you're gay. Or maybe it's just a relationship dynamic. Perhaps you just got divorced last week, your mother died, or I'm a controlling righteous jerk. It has nothing to do with race, gender or class."
According to Griggs, there are many things we can do. In our organizations we have "figured out the interpersonal compliant work," which has made much progress. But more important, "We must recognize the so-called diversity relationship issues as absolutely systemic, not a separate diversity program, not a separate AA or EEO policy or practice. It is all connected." It is a system composed of different parts.
Griggs adds, "In every relationship there are gifts, love and benefits. But there are also moments when difference of perspective, style or personality leads to misunderstanding and discomfort. At those moments we have a choice: fight or flight. We either flee to avoid conflict or fight to create conflict. Those are the two extremes. I don't favor either. I much prefer seeing the difference as an opportunity to understand one another's perspective before it gets out of hand."
Griggs concludes, "We need to understand and relate across all our human differences, and value the ones that help us achieve our common goals. We need to maximize our common objectives and bottom-line profits. What straight, white-male MBA at the top could possibly find fault with that? I have got to use my Stanford language. I've got to go back to the people I grew up with that are sitting at the top not 'getting it,' and the ones that are 'talking it' but aren't walking their talk. That's my purpose."