Say you're doing a site visit for an association's national conference. The head of the conferences division who is taking you around the convention center points to banners and signage for a corporate meeting going on at the time, and explains how you could do the same with your promotions. Then she adds, “as long as there's no nudity.”

Hard to imagine, isn't it? But that's exactly what happened to Justin Nelson, president and co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce recently. “I was floored,” he says. “I asked if she said that to the corporate group whose banners we were looking at, and she said no. When I asked why she said it to me, she had no answer.” At least, not one she was willing to own up to.

Now that so many associations are jumping on the demographic trends outlined in the box on page 22, multiculturally friendly meetings are gaining prominence. But inclusivity is not easy because, no matter how strong your diversity committee is, it's made up of humans. And all humans discriminate, says Asheville, N.C.-based Patricia Digh, co-founder of The Circle Project, which uses art, story, and theater to help individuals build more inclusive communities. It's hard-wired into the human brain to be most comfortable around those who are most like you — and to make assumptions and judgments about those who aren't like you. It's OK to admit that.

What's not OK, she adds, is acting on these assumptions without first recognizing that they exist, and then educating yourself about whether they're based on reality or not. If you don't, you run the risk of yanking the welcome rug right out from under the very people you hope to attract.

The Perspective Deficit

“It's important to find out where your perspective deficit is so you can compensate for it,” says Greg Fine, CAE, director of communications and marketing with the Association Forum of Chicagoland, Chicago. But that can be difficult, because that deficit is just as likely to spring from the unconscious as from the conscious, according to LeRoy Thompson, managing director of Springfield, Va.-based Top Management Assistance, which provides diversity audits to all kinds of organizations. “Some people just don't want to deal with diversity-related problems, but often, people just haven't had enough exposure to the issues to think about the implications of the decisions they make.”

While minority groups aren't immune to having biases about other groups, many of the challenges come because “we're trying to do diversity work from a dominant culture perspective,” says Digh. That's because, anecdotally at least, the majority of nonminority association boards, executives, and meeting planners still are members of the dominant culture — white, heterosexual, middle-class, and Christian.

This majority orientation can lead associations to all kinds of assumptions that need to be examined, one of which is that everyone in a minority group is alike. “We tend to treat minority groups monolithically, not as a community of individuals as varied as we in the dominant culture are,” Digh adds.

Think about food, for example. Meetings regularly feature, say, a Hispanic-themed banquet, or an Asian luncheon. “But if I were going to do a buffet that celebrated white Americans, your first question would be, ‘Why would I do that?’” says Digh. After all, there is no white American cuisine; it's a cornucopia of Italian, French, German, etc., foods. And that's exactly the point, she says. Hispanic cuisine is not just tacos and burritos, but the food of all Spanish-speaking countries. Asian cuisine is not just fried rice and egg rolls, or sushi, but what people eat in the 62 Asian countries and dependencies, from Afghanistan to Yemen. “We need to allow the same level of specificity and texture and richness and variety for other groups of people as we do for our own group,” says Digh.

More food for thought: No meeting planner in her right mind would do a February Black History Month buffet with fried chicken and watermelon, because it's a stereotype that this is what blacks eat, and also, this stereotype has been used historically to portray African Americans in a bad light. But it can be trickier when the stereotype isn't laden with negative symbolism. For example, is offering Taco Bell-style burritos for a Mexican buffet minimizing the cuisine of Mexico to what white Americans think Mexicans eat, or would the people of Mexican descent in your group also consider it representative of that country? You may find out that it's perfectly fine, but you'll never know for sure if you don't ask.

Sometimes you may find you're just too close to a diversity-related problem to see it, much less deal with it. “My culture is normal to me, and I don't question it because I grew up with it. It's my blind spot,” says Digh. “Like in a car, the best way to see around a blind spot is to have someone else in the car with you. One of the questions I always ask is, ‘Who else should be at the table?’” This could be someone else in your organization who comes from a different background or who volunteers. Sometimes it makes sense to call in a professional in diversity issues who can keep the focus on what it takes to make the organization more productive, rather than create defensiveness, says Nelson.

“If you only have a few attendees of a certain culture, you don't necessarily have to change the agenda to accommodate them,” says Hala Durrah, founder and president, Fusion Event Management Services, Bowie, Md. “But if you have 50, 100, 200, you have to accommodate them.” And it shouldn't be difficult to find out just who's coming. Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt and Associates, Washington, D.C., says, “Survey your audience. Most professional societies know from human resources statistics what their demographics are. Use the Internet, use your listservs. We have access to so much information these days. It's not like it's 1950.”

Tokens are for Subways

Then there's tokenism. Suzette Eaddy, CMP, director of conferences with the National Minority Supplier Development Council Inc., New York, says that it's not enough just to include a token “entertainer or ball player” of color as a featured speaker. For a brochure to truly motivate people to attend, showcase minority speakers who are doing well in their profession, she says.

Another common way associations attempt to diversify their meetings is to include what Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder and president of New Demographic, an anti-racism training company in New York, calls “the panel of marginalized people.” This is a panel that features, for example, a black person, a Hispanic person, a young person, and a person with a physical disability put on display to discuss their issues as members of a specific group. Instead of creating “the ‘diversity ghetto,’ planners could include those issues in the main topics of the conference.” She notes as an example a blogging conference she attended where they had a panel that discussed the different ways in which your identity intersects with blogging. “It became an open discussion not just about race, but about all aspects of identity,” she says.

And include minorities among your mainstream topic speakers, she adds. “It's more powerful if you have a panel of top executives that includes a person of color discussing a business issue, than it is to just plop that person of color up there to talk about their race.” The Association Forum of Chicagoland, Chicago, is very attuned to this, says vice president and COO Pamm Schroeder. But, she adds, it takes more work to find new, diverse voices than it does to just fall back on speakers you already know and have good evaluations for.

“Everyone wants to go for the tried-and-true, but you have to take a chance on new speakers to get new, diverse voices.” That, she says, takes time and phone calling and attending your own sessions to see who “seems to be interesting and interested in the topic.” (See article on page 28 for more ideas.) To take some of the nail-biting out of the experience, she suggests putting a new speaker whose speaking skills you're not sure about on with another presenter who's a known quantity. Speakers bureaus also can be a big help in finding diverse presenters. “You have to think carefully about the message that's being sent by putting on a monochromatic program. It's saying that no one else has anything to offer, and that's a terrible message,” says Schroeder.

A variation on tokenism is what Nelson calls the “Joe-from-Accounting syndrome.” “We see it a lot, often from marketing, where they say, ‘Joe from accounting is gay, so we ran the promotion by him,’” says Nelson. “But Joe isn't an expert in gay and lesbian marketing — he's an accountant who happens to be gay. And he can only speak for Joe; he doesn't speak for all gay people.” Van Kerckhove says, “It's important to speak with as many people as possible to get a well-rounded sense” of what would make them feel included and welcomed at the meeting.

Another common misperception made by dominant-culture planners, says Van Kerckhove, happens when people look around at a meeting and, seeing that there are few people of color, assume that it's because there are few people of color in the profession or interest group the meeting serves. In fact, it may be that “many of the people organizing the conferences haven't stepped out of their comfort zone to do a more thorough search to find people who are different from the mainstream” of attendees, she says.

Just Ask. They'll Tell

Once you understand where you're coming from, the next step is to educate yourself about how your assumptions measure up — or don't — to the realities of different cultures, ethnicities, religions, and ages. Most people will be glad to educate you about their world. Instead of getting mad after the nudity remark, Nelson recognized that the person he was dealing with wasn't inherently homophobic. “She was just ignorant about the realities of the segment,” he says. “We took it as an opportunity to educate, rather than retreat or make a big stink about it.”

Sometimes, you may just have to admit that you really don't know how to be inclusive toward a specific group of people. It can be painful, and scary to step up and ask the hard questions. You risk sounding insensitive, or ignorant, or both. But many, if not most people likely will share the attitude of Hala Durrah, founder and president, Fusion Event Management Services, Bowie, Md. “I don't mind being the poster child for the Muslim-American population,” she says with a laugh, noting that she is serving as just that for the purpose of this article. “I don't want ignorance to be bliss.” Just be respectful in the way you ask, she says. “I don't get offended if someone asks me about my hijab [traditional Islamic head scarf] by saying, ‘Can I ask you the significance of that,’” instead of ‘Why are you wearing that weird thing on your head?’ There is a way to ask, but we shouldn't let fear drive our actions.”

And even if you do get rebuffed, Digh points to this quote from diversity author George Simons: “What people in the U.S. don't seem to realize is that it is as destructive to intentionally take offense as it is to intentionally give offense.” She adds, “People on both sides of the registration desk have to be moving toward each other in recognition that they're part of a larger group.”

Ultimately, though, however much you learn about a group, individuals within that group are not going to be walking in lockstep. As Sarina Butler, association executive director, American Bar Association, Chicago office, says, “We recognize that even if you have a group of 30-year-old white males, they likely won't like the same things.” You will have to treat people individually by asking what would make that person feel included. And don't worry that treating people as individuals will result in 20,000 special requests, Digh adds. “They won't all come knocking on your door asking for accommodations.”

Meetings are Just the Beginning

“You can't discuss [diversity in meetings] in a vacuum,” says one meeting professional, who wishes to remain anonymous. This person emphasizes that the biases that play out in meetings are just reflections of what happens in association leadership, and society in general.

“I'm optimistic, and hope that diversity is no longer just about political correctness or appropriateness,” says Emil Chuck, PhD, health professions adviser and term assistant professor of biology at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., and co-chair of the diversity committee of the National Postdoctoral Association. (Chuck notes that these are his personal reflections and not representative of any organization with which he is affiliated.) “However, diversity is much more than putting a committee together that never meets, or installing a person as chief diversity officer who has practically no budget and no office.”

One example of an organization that seems to have diversity in its DNA is the Association for Conflict Resolution, based in Washington, D.C. Executive Director Douglas Kleine says that every ACR committee, department — including the meetings department — chapter, and interest group has a trained “diversity and equity point person to provide a lens into how what that group is doing advances or hinders diversity and equity.”

He adds that for every proposal, “we ask how this fits with our strategic plan, what's the impact on staff and the budget, and what's the equity and diversity impact.” For ACR's meetings, diversity and equity efforts include holding tracks on how members can better handle conflict resolution in multicultural situations, and holding sessions in languages other than English. The programming committee also searches hard to find speakers who not only represent other races and cultures, but also share new insights into working with those groups. “At our last meeting, we had someone from the Arizona State University who just rocked people with her presentation of the misconceptions we have about the laws of indigenous American people,” says Kleine.

An organization must be committed with its infrastructure, its culture, its policies, and its social norms for goals of diversity and inclusion to be met.” Arleen Edwards, director of conference services with the Hartford (Conn.) CVB, adds, “If an organization is truly committed to diversity, their efforts are tangible and can be measured.” This means, says Sharmagne Taylor, CMP, president of Houston-based meeting management company On-Site Partners, making diversity a big-picture initiative, not just a social program, and tying diversity goals to performance measures, raises, and bonuses, as well as hiring and promotion decisions, and vendor and supplier selection for the association and its events.

Schroeder adds that it's a commitment you have to follow through on. “You can't just do one annual meeting that has different groups represented, then next year go on to something else. It has to be an ongoing mind-set,” both inside the organization and at its meetings.

As Edwards says, “The difference between being inclusive and paying inclusivity lip service is in the results.”

How Far Do You Need to Go?

One common response to the confusing and complex issue of making a meeting truly multicultural is to throw up one's hands at the thought of having to learn about every holiday and dietary need and musical preference for every race, religion, culture, and ethnicity in the world. That would be, of course, impossible.

The one thing that is guaranteed to make any nonmainstream group feel marginalized at a meeting? “Silence, complete and utter silence,” says Justin Nelson, president and co-founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C. “Organizations don't need to be marching in the annual gay pride parade, but in the absence of acceptance is silence. And this goes for any type of diversity, be it GLBT [gay, lesbian, bi-, or transsexual] or otherwise.”

“If you only have a few attendees of a certain culture, you don't necessarily have to change the agenda to accommodate them,” says Hala Durrah, founder and president, Fusion Event Management Services, Bowie, Md. “But if you have 50, 100, 200, you have to accommodate them.” And it shouldn't be difficult to find out just who's coming. Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt and Associates, Washington, D.C., says, “Survey your audience. Most professional societies know from human resources statistics what their demographics are. Use the Internet, use your listservs. We have access to so much information these days. It's not like it's 1950.”

But before you get too comfortable thinking you have your racial, ethnic, and religious demographic nailed, listen to Sharmagne Taylor, CMP, president of Houston-based meeting management firm On-Site Partners. She points out that you may also have people with disabilities, smokers, environmentalists, Generations X and Y, Baby Boomers, and a host of other special-interest groups, all with their own set of needs. And don't forget the professional niches that also may need some attention. For example, if your main audience is physicians but you also are bringing in some pharmacists and nurses, make sure their needs are represented in the agenda and on the dais.

Nelson says, “You can't be all things to all people, but there are simple ways to make people of all kinds feel welcome.” (See page 24 for some ideas.) Ultimately, says Washington, D.C.-based Association for Conflict Resolution Executive Director Douglas Kleine, you just need to “treat people with dignity and respect. That's the bottom line.”

Why Inclusivity Matters

Once upon a time, no one gave a thought to accommodating differences when it came to meetings. They were what they were, and you attended or you didn't. Now, everyone at least is thinking about how to make their meetings inclusive to those of nonmainstream religions, races, and cultures. What changed?

“A lot of it is legislation,” says Washington, D.C.-based Association for Conflict Resolution Executive Director Douglas Kleine. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a big impact, and “The Americans with Disabilities Act was a big waker-upper for a lot of people.”

Generational demands may also play into it, says Emil Chuck, PhD, health professions advisor and term assistant professor of biology at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., and co-chair of the diversity committee of the National Postdoctoral Association. (He notes that these are his personal reflections and not representative of any organization with which he is affiliated.) “If you believe the many books that talk about Millennials, people in their 20s and 30s are seeking organizations that welcome diversity and specifically shun organizations that don't. So organizations that wish to nurture a pipeline of young, energetic people should recognize that inclusiveness is essential.”

Then there's pure market sense. One in three U.S. residents is multiethnic, multiracial, or multicultural — by 2050, 47 percent of the population will be non-white, according to the U.S Census Bureau; 25 percent of the population will be Hispanic or Latino, 14 percent will be black, 8 percent will be Asian, and 5 percent will be of other races. And their economic clout is growing along with their numbers. Consumers also are making buying decisions — including conference registration fees — based on what organizations stand for. “That's why so many companies have diversity statements,” says Asheville, N.C.-based Patti Digh, co-founder of The Circle Project, which uses art, story, and theater to help individuals build more inclusive communities.

“I always use the economic argument for diversity first, and leave the social justice mantra to others,” says Justin Nelson, president and co-founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C. “Of course, I'm with a chamber of commerce. But the end result is the same, whichever way you approach it.”

Market Population Buying Power
African American 30 Million $535 Billion
Gay American 16.5 Million $450 Billion
Hispanic American 31 Million $383 Billion
Asian American 11 Million $229 Billion
Source: Selig Center for Economic Growth, University of Georgia

Comments? Contact Sue Pelletier at spelletier@meetingsnet.com