#7 Breaking down the barriers that divide

By Vicki Terrell

In April, the topic for the Be. Leadership programme was: "Our diversity: What unities and divides us and everything in between."

I have noticed that most of us have a love-hate relationship with diversity because we like the idea of diversity being the spice of life, yet we find disagreement and conflict hard to handle. I was taught from a young age to get along with everyone and not to be disagreeable.

As leaders, particularly in social change, people will disagree with us. We need to handle this creatively and keep channels of communication open with people who may have different points of view to us.

At our April gathering, we heard from three leaders who have worked with diverse communities: Dr Huhana Hickey, a human rights lawyer and an advocate; Penny Hulse, Deputy Mayor of Auckland; and Mary-Jane Rivers, a community development worker from Wellington. These three wise women, all coming from different perspectives, spoke about the joys and challenges of diversity.

Huhana described mediating between people who disagree as "catching the bees with honey". This phrase speaks of the need to be gentle and hospitable towards those who disagree. Penny spoke about people being united over the big picture of what they want, but deeply disagreeing over the details of how to get there. Mary-Jane spoke about “the space in between” as being the place where new things can emerge. These spaces are not easy places to be in. Mary-Jane also challenged us to expect that, if things were worth doing, we should expect some opposition.

A workshop on diversity, complexity and chaos helped to develop our thinking on leadership and change. There needs to be a certain amount of chaos as a momentum for change. I realised that when leading a group, I enjoy being able to “go with the flow”. This happens when I am confident and have prepared myself well. In our fast-changing world, we need to be able to go with the flow and embrace diversity, without letting go our core values.

Leadership in social change is challenging because it questions the status quo. People may not like the status quo, but feel there is no alternative, and fear change. Since change happens anyway, as leaders, we need to listen to diverse voices and encourage people into dialogue and action. This ensures people are empowered to have better lives because of the change.

Breaking down the barriers that divide people helps bring hope and strength to our communities.