I attended a Diversity & Inclusion training on unconscious bias this week and it brought back a very strong memory of how I was introduced to the idea of diversity. As a freshman at Ohio State, I was destined to keep off the “Freshman 15”. I saw a flier for the Nike running group, which met at 7am on Monday mornings. I was never a runner – most of my running to that point included running to a friend’s house during track practice to eat cookies and watch the Ricki Lake show – but I digress. College was a new experience, and I decided running could be part of this chapter of my life.
I showed up the first Monday expecting to see a huge room full of runners. Surprisingly, the lobby was empty. Looking a bit lost, I was approached by another student – an older African-American guy. When I told him I was there to participate in the morning run, he informed me that he was the running group leader and it looked like we were the only two people brave enough to run at such an early hour. I could have backed out then and there – backed out on running a few miles since I wasn’t in running shape, or made an excuse to leave because running alone on campus with a black man was a completely unexpected and foreign idea. But I didn’t back out. I took two miles in stride and got to know my running companion. I learned that this student, Gion, was a fourth year business major, currently working for Nike on campus. He was from Columbus and loved Ohio State.
I grew up in a predominately – if not exclusively – white town. As much as my parents raised me to be open-minded and exposed me to as much as possible growing up, racial and ethnic diversity was simply not a part of daily life. That Monday morning run sticks with me today because Gion was the first black man that I got to know one-on-one. I relied on one of the most important skills I learned from small town life, which was how to get to know a stranger. Gion and I related to one another and made a great connection during our runs through campus. I continued to run with him during autumn quarter, but as the weather grew colder, I stopped attending the runs.
Later that year, I got a call from Gion. He wondered if I was at my dorm because he wanted to stop by. This was pretty random, as off-campus seniors don’t typically visit freshman in their dorm. I told him where to find me and a while later he came with a pair of Nike running shoes for me. He told me since I’d been so dedicated to the Monday morning runs, he wanted to reward my participation. I wore those shoes until they were threadbare. Each time I put them on, I reminded myself that strangers can become friends, and that outward differences don’t mean you can’t find common ground.
Small Town Leadership Lesson: I met many people who looked like me during college, but had opposing viewpoints and preferences. And I met people who looked nothing like me, but we had a number of similarities. That’s what I was brought back to during my unconscious bias training – put labels, stereotypes, and assumptions aside and get to know people. The next time you see someone who doesn’t look like you and your first impulse is to dismiss them, think about my run with Gion – step into the opportunity. I find myself doing this on a quiet Monday morning elevator ride or in the afternoon coffee line. You never know when you might meet your next running companion – or simply someone who will help the world feel like a smaller place.
I believe we need to educate ourselves and understand the viewpoints of others more now than ever. It doesn’t mean we need to agree with one another, but recognizing our biases is a big step toward working collectively for the greater good.
I wish I knew what Gion was doing today. I couldn’t friend him on Facebook or connect with him on LinkedIn as a student. I’m sure he’s doing amazing things and making friends with strangers like he did with me many years ago.