By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
In the close, airless atmosphere of a Boeing classroom, the oily smells of Filipino noodles, beef, and mushrooms cling to the sounds of voices chattering, sharing confidences, and laughing.
On the board is a slide: “As Others See Me.”
The class is different from other leadership seminars, although the materials are similar, in that all of the participants are Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs).
“I always thought my parents were hard on me,” said Sherry Gao, a recent University of Washington (UW) graduate and IT specialist from Premera Blue Cross taking the class.
The class was being offered by the Executive Development Institute (EDI), a nonprofit co-founded in 1994 by a Japanese Boeing director that trains business people from Asian and Latino backgrounds in leadership.
“But here, I’ve found that other people have the same backgrounds,” added Gao.
Like Gao, APIs and others of marginalized backgrounds in Seattle are finding community as part of the city’s push, during a time of divisiveness, to transform itself into a center of diversity.
Major institutions, such as the Seattle Mayor’s Office and the University of Washington, are using similar consciousness-raising techniques to promote a more diverse leadership.
In response to an editorial published recently in this newspaper, highlighting the enhanced success of companies that hired diverse leadership, Senior Deputy Seattle Mayor Mike Fong emailed that the Jenny Durkan administration had made this a priority.
“Including our nominated cabinet members that still need council confirmation, we have eight API cabinet officials,” he wrote. “I think this is the most in history.”
In a subsequent interview, he explained that the city has been able to achieve these results partially through transforming its hiring process.
During every interview for a leadership position, the city institutes a “pause” of 20-30 minutes when the candidate is asked to step outside.
“We take that time to explore and talk about our biases,” said Fong.
Fong, as a fourth generation Washingtonian and one who has served in government for decades, explained that he might have biases — either for or against a candidate who came from elsewhere in the nation or was in the private sector.
“We want to get it all out on the table so we’re aware,” he said.
As a result of such a process, and as a result of conducting national searches for positions, the mayor’s office has been able to hire leaders that include Seattle Public Utilities Director Mami Hara, Office of Economic Development Director Bobby Lee, Office of Ombud Director Dr. Amarah Khan, Office of Civil Rights Director Mariko Lockhart, Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Director Cuc Vu, Department of Information Technology Director Saad Bashir, Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan, Fong, and Mayor’s Legal Counsel Michelle Chen.
Building a critical mass
At the UW, Chadwick Allen knows about the need to build a critical mass of diverse talent.
Tasked with hiring more faculty of color in a university where still around 80 percent of full-time professors are white, the associate vice provost for faculty advancement has been given a pool of $1 million a year by the provost’s office to help departments in their searches.
He uses that money to lure underrepresented candidates in the final stages of bargaining, when a candidate may be weighing other, more lucrative offers. In addition, in rare cases, he may ask the provost to personally call the applicant.
However, even when he pulls out all the stops, he sometimes fails, since nationwide candidates from diverse backgrounds are often highly in demand.
“It’s a bit like gambling,” he said.
But, he noted, letting a candidate know that the provost is putting up extra money “shows that everyone is in.”
In one recent case, a highly competitive young Black scholar chose Stanford after Chadwick and the provost had done everything they could.
But he’s optimistic the candidate might someday return to the UW.
“We spent a lot of time with the candidate,” he said. “Down the road, there may be other opportunities, we maybe made a favorable impression.”
Chadwick also coaches departments and search committees in writing advertisements that appeal to everyone.
The College of Education, for instance, recently “worded an ad to strongly encourage people from a lot of different backgrounds to apply,” said Chadwick, a scholar of contemporary Native American and global indigenous literatures, other expressive arts, and activism. “Our goal is to have the broadest pool apply.”
In this case, the college made three offers to American Indian faculty members. One accepted.
There are many reasons, besides money, that faculty from underprivileged backgrounds may not choose to come to the UW. Among them are the virulent housing market in Seattle, family considerations, and the lack of a critical mass of other scholars with the same background, said Chadwick.
One long-time member of the faculty, however, speaking off the record due to the sensitive nature of the topic, said that the university is still deeply entrenched in the problems that have plagued academia historically, particularly an overabundance of white professors in departments devoted to ethnic or international studies.
A rough count of professors in African Studies and the Jackson School of International Studies seems to corroborate such an assessment: the majority by far is white.
Moreover, the data seems to cloud the issue. Since Chadwick’s beat does not include compiling data, he admits the evidence for an increase in diverse faculty hiring is “anecdotal.”
But at the same time, he stresses, change in a university is “long term.”
“People are in school for 10 years,” he said, referring to a new wave of faculty of color now seeking positions.
Meanwhile, of the faculty of color currently teaching at the UW, many are reluctant to represent their ethnicities in filling out forms, making the data under representational of the actual diversity.
“For example, official statistics show that there are 17 people in the survey that are American Indian faculty,” he said.
But he said there are more faculty members with American Indian ancestry that identify as mixed ancestry.
“There are at least 25,” he said.
Still, the UW is successful in enabling some faculty members of color to find their voices in examining their own isolation within the walls of academia.
Professor Juan C. Guerra, chair of the department of American ethnic studies, has published in academic circles about his transition from a life of agricultural laboring in South Texas to his current role as professor.
In a book about reframing sociocultural research, for instance, Guerra published an article entitled, “Out of the Valley,” in which he chronicles his linguistic and cultural journey from his childhood to the privileged cloister of academia.
The guilt, or concern he feels for losing touch with the struggles and people of his past might be the kind of factor that would drive away faculty of color from academia.
But at the same time, he has found a means to express it within an academic context.
“Despite every effort I have made over the past 2 or 3 years, I am only now beginning to feel equipped to go back and examine the lives of people that should ostensibly mean more to me than almost anyone else’s,” he wrote.
Building community and strengthening values
In one exercise in the Boeing classroom, donated for the workshop to EDI, students face each other and share their first impressions. Gao sits across from a participant from Keiro NW, an Asian retirement center.
“He did think I was soft spoken,” said Gao. “But he thought there was a lot more to me, too.”
The goal of the workshop is not to change the inherent values of the participants, but to make them aware of how they are perceived by others, particularly those outside their cultures.
“We’re all about once you’re in your company or on the path in your career, how do you maneuver and get where you want without having to compromise your values and who you are,” said Marci Nakano, executive director of EDI.
In the case of Gao, her boss, an Asian woman she describes as “strong,” sent her to EDI because she was, in fact, worried about her being too “soft spoken.”
“Being around all these people,” she says, gazing out at the loud room of several dozen women and men talking, “I’ve met a number of strong Asian women with commanding personalities. That’s important to me, because the stereotype for Asian women is to be meek and submissive.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.