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Dr David Carlson of Franklin College: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

Accept that the lifeblood of any business is creativity. The most successful businesses are those that recognize that creativity can be found in employees of all ranks and titles.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Dr. David Carlson.

Dr. David Carlson is Philosophy and Religion Professor Emeritus at Franklin College. Franklin, Indiana. He is the award-winning author of Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World (2011) as well as the Christopher Worthy and Father Fortis Mysteries (2015–2021). He is the past founder of “Shoulder to Shoulder in Interfaith Witness,” has offered seminars on inclusion to a major American corporation, and writes a weekly column on politics, religion, and society.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a minister’s family in Illinois. My grade school classrooms looked out at the courthouse in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln practiced law. My lifelong interest in history, the interplay of religion and politics, and racial justice began there. When I was ten years old, my father took me to hear a Baptist minister who’d just been released from jail. That was Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember that the room was packed with other ministers. No doubt many of those ministers worried about how much of the Civil Rights Movement they could talk about in their churches. While I do not remember King’s exact words that night, I will never forget his strength and calmness.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Two books that affected me deeply in my high school years were John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I read Malcolm X’s autobiography around the time I became interested in Muhammad Ali. Coming from a religious family, I felt a kinship when I saw Ali pray in the corner of the boxing ring before a fight and when I read about Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca. The fact that both were Muslims and I a Christian seemed incidental.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

One of my favorite quotes is either from St. Theresa of Avila or from Dorothy Day, possible both. “God does not expect us to succeed, but to try.” This is a mantra that inspires me when I’m tempted to apathy. The quote reminds me, when taking a controversial stand, not to focus on the immediate effect, great or small, of the effort.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

The emphasis on “service” in the Servant Leadership model hits home for me. Effective leaders are those who serve a greater good than themselves and inspire others to join in those “beyond-ourselves” efforts. Leaders who understand this maximize meaning in their lives when they serve others.

This was brought home to me in a story told by Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he was young, he was told he wouldn’t be able to achieve much as a bodybuilder. He proved them wrong. Then he was told, because of his accent, he wouldn’t ever be an actor. He proved them wrong. Then he was told he would have no chance of succeeding in politics. He proved them wrong.

That’s a lot of success, but Mr. Schwarzenegger’s story makes a different point. His mother-in-law at the time, Eunice Shriver, was the founder of Special Olympics. She had repeatedly asked her son-in-law to participate in one of the events, and he eventually agreed to do so. At the event, he worked with young Special Olympians who were lifting light weights. One boy hung back, and when Mr. Schwarzenegger encouraged him to join in, the boy became frantic. Mr. Schwarzenegger told the boy he was free not to participate but invited him to stay and watch the others. When all the other athletes had competed, he asked the reluctant boy again. This time the boy agreed. He started with a low weight, but then lifted one heavier weight after another. The boy was ecstatic.

Later that night, as Mr. Schwarzenegger was sitting alone in his hotel room, he realized that he had never felt more fulfilled in his life than he did that night.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

In my earlier adult years, I was frequently invited to speak in churches. I put a lot of pressure on myself to “knock the opportunity out of the park.” When I did do well, I noticed that audiences were complimentary but also a bit reserved in their praise. When I stumbled over words or found myself emotionally involved in my message, people afterwards would thank me profusely for what I had shared and how I had shared it. That was when I realized that what my audiences needed from me was to be human with them. Perfection as a goal is a trap.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

I view our current situation through a spiritual lens. Repentance is hard, and humans are often afraid to admit their wrongs. I share with others the belief that racism in all its forms is America’s Original Sin. It’s a sin that is hard to admit to, and many Americans refuse to even look seriously at the role racism played in our past and plays in our present. The election of Obama was a step in correcting an historic wrong that also brought racism racing to the surface.

More recently, the death of one Black American after another at the hands of police has forced us to face the racism that pervades our society at all levels. It is too easy for white men like me, who benefit from racial stereotypes, to announce that our society has reached the tipping point on racism. We’ll know we’ve reached that point when people of color tell us we’ve reached it — not before.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Many of my current efforts focus on Muslim-Christian relations. In addition to being an active member of several interfaith groups, I was, before Covid, a frequent speaker on this topic. My talks compare the “low hurdle” of tolerance (we tolerate a headache or a baby crying on an airplane) with the “middle hurdle” of understanding (taking the time to understand the beliefs and values of other religions) and with the “high hurdle” of Spiritual Friendship. Spiritual friendships across religious lines are sustained relations where each partner encourages the spiritual growth of the other partner. Muslims need me to be a better Christian; Christians need Muslims to be better Muslims.

Story: For the past 23 years (except during Covid), a group of Muslims and Christians have been meeting weekly over lunch in a Jewish deli in Indianapolis. There is no “program” or “curriculum,” only friendship. Meeting the last decade with this group not only led me to write a book (Countering Religious Extremism: The Healing Power of Spiritual Friendships (2016) but has convinced me that spiritual friendships across religious lines is one of the most hopeful developments in our country. Put simply, knowing Muslims has helped me become a better Christian.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Forget all ideas of having token executives or meeting diversity quotas. The most powerful stimulus to creativity is bringing together people from diverse backgrounds who are empowered to express that diversity. The phrase “I look at this issue from a different perspective” is often the prelude to discovering that the best solution isn’t “my view” or “your view,” but the “third view” that comes from this open exchange.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

The “business” I have devoted my life to is higher education. Higher education needs to be more inclusive, representative, and equitable. The good news is that higher education recognizes this need.

Step One: Accept that the lifeblood of any business is creativity. The most successful businesses are those that recognize that creativity can be found in employees of all ranks and titles.

Story or example: The richest period of innovation and positive change at Franklin College, where I taught for over forty years, occurred when we tore down the silos in which faculty, administration, and support staff had traditionally worked. From that time forward, we “shuffled the cards” to create planning groups composed of the most creative minds regardless of title.

Step Two: Recognize that creativity and diversity are linked.

Story or example: Creativity is a trickle, not a free-flowing stream, in a business that that is racially, ethnically, socially, and in other ways uniform. The more those sitting at the table share the same backgrounds and history, the less likely that business, community, or group will achieve its creative potential.

Step Three: Recognize that token or minimal representation in a business/community tends to silence the very ones who might have the most creative ideas to share.

Story or example: If a member of a committee or company is the only member or one of the only members of a minority, that person often feels that she will be less heard, her contributions less valued, and her contributions more open to being challenged.

Step Four: Accept that the price of achieving creative diversity and a sense of equality in a business will be some discomfort and will take time.

Story or example: As someone once expressed it, “We will have to be more uncomfortable before we can become comfortable.” This increased tension can be productive if we practice more inclusive ways of being and relating with one another. For example, instead of saying, “What I don’t like about your idea . . .” or “That’s not going to work,” say instead, “Help me understand why you say that,” or “Help me understand how we can put this into practice.”

Also, avoid rushing to consensus. Learn to live in the tension.

Step Five: Recognize the value of making mistakes in the process of succeeding.

Story or example: In my teaching, I recognized the fear in students of making a mistake in public or offering a wrong answer to a question. This fear is quite common in business as well. To combat that fear, I regularly presented to the class a difficult puzzle to solve, where the only way the puzzle could be solved was for students to suggest “wrong” answers in order for the class to finally arrive at the right answer. At the end of the exercise, I would ask, “How long would it have taken us to figure out the right answer if no one in the class had been willing to offer wrong suggestions?” The answer to that is that the class would never have solved the problem.

This might seem to have little to do with inclusion and equity, but it is a facet of both. If an organization values the place that wrong efforts have in arriving at the best solution, then everyone is free to both make mistakes and accept that their mistakes as important steps to success. This is the inclusion and equality of everyone’s contribution.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

My cautious optimism is connected with the advent of Critical Race Theory (CRT). What is CRT? It is a commitment to tell the whole truth, not just the comfortable truths of our nation’s story. When we “whitewash” our nation’s past, we cannot help but believe our nation’s best days are in the past. Believing that makes us susceptible to politicians who want to make the US “great again,” as if our greatness is in the past.

Critical Race Theory asks us to tell the whole truth about our nation’s past, which includes many shining moments and developments, but also the systemic exploitation of Native Americans, Black Americans, Hispanic and Asian Americans. To admit that the past is both glorious and inglorious is the key to realizing that our nation’s best days can lie in the future. I find that exciting and inspiring. The message of Critical Race Theory is “We can be better.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

What a great question. A dream of mine is to meet Billy Mills, the Lakota Sioux Olympic Gold Medal winner (1964) who has never stopped inspiring Native American youth. The current “race” Mr. Mills is running is raising money to complete a youth community center at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Mr. Mill puts his energy into what can be done, not what can’t be done. And that’s a meal I’d be happy to pay for!

How can our readers follow you online?

I can be found at davidccarlson.net

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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