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Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 11:09 am

CWLP employees learn to deal with diversity

All city workers will take diversity training course

Employees at City Water, Light and Power are now taking diversity awareness training, following incidents of alleged racism there earlier this year.

In July, CWLP employee Mike Williams reported a rope tied into a noose hanging from his work station, sparking a months-long controversy that culminated in 60-day suspensions for the two employees involved.

As a result of that incident and another involving a noose hung from a forklift at another CWLP facility, CWLP employees have begun attending a class on understanding diversity, according to CWLP spokeswoman Amber Sabin. All city workers will take the course eventually, Sabin says.

The classes are taught by Kim White, chief administrator for training and development at the Illinois Department of Human Resources in Springfield. White says the high-impact, interactive course is designed to show that “diversity is not a trend; it’s a reality.”

“We try to focus on getting participants to look for common ground and talk about cultural differences,” White says. “We open a dialogue of communication that is constructive and respectful.”

The three-and-a-half hour course doesn’t shy away from stereotypes, she says. Instead, the training teaches people to deal with stereotypes.

“Sometimes, because it’s not politically correct, people want to push (stereotypes) down like they don’t exist,” White says. “But they do. The reality is that stereotypes exist. What we want to do is teach people how to handle stereotypes when they come up. It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t support this.’ In one instance, we used a technique called ‘ouch.’ You may not want to have a direct confrontation with the person, but if they’re saying something sort of out-of-pocket that you don’t agree with, you can just say, ‘ouch,’ back away, and that person then knows you don’t accept or support what they’re saying. What that typically does is it forces the other person to look at what they said as well.”

Class sizes are kept intentionally small to encourage participation, she says, and students learn recognition, understanding and acceptance. The subject matter is not limited to race, but also deals with disabilities, age differences, gender and more.

“This is the first time in the history of our country where we have four generations working in the workplace at the same time,” she says. “That brings a different set of diversity issues. We have other trainings that deal with some of these topics more in-depth, but the diversity awareness training itself is a broad perspective of why it’s important to respect cultural differences in a global economy.”

About 20,000 people from private companies, government bodies and other organizations have taken similar courses from IDHR since 2006, White says. Training is currently provided for free, she says, noting that IDHR plans to implement small training fees in the near future.

“The department has done training for the past seven years, but our materials continually evolve,” White says. “This segment was updated this year. We’re constantly looking at ways to improve it, based on feedback that we get from our different clients.”

Williams said via e-mail he is glad the city is mandating the training, but he hopes it isn’t the only measure taken. The Springfield chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among others, called for the three men responsible for the nooses to be fired, but the city declined to fire them. The three men instead received 60-day suspensions from work – a punishment said by Civil Service Commission vice chairman Kent Gray to be “a new level of discipline…that basically keeps people from being terminated.”

CWLP employees Kevin Conway, Gregory Selinger and Bradley Barber were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing for their involvement by a grand jury in September.

Since then, about half of CWLP employees have undergone diversity training, and about 400 more will begin taking the course when new classes are available.

“The general manager (Todd Renfrow) believes that work environments can improve when employees understand and respect each other’s differences, which in turn improves performance on the job,” Sabin said via e-mail. “Feedback from the evaluation forms from the classes has been excellent and many have shared very positive comments regarding the content and their experience in the training.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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