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Blind or Brave in the Face of Difference

A group of people posing in different manners against the setting sun.

A few years ago, Mellody Hobson, President of Ariel Investments, shared the talk Color Blind or Color Brave at the TED2014 Conference. Despite being warned about discussing race on such a large platform, Mellody spoke on this topic because she believes racial discrimination "threatens to rob another generation of all the opportunities that all of us want for our children, no matter what their color or where they come from".

While Hobson’s talk focused exclusively on race, any word for difference can be substituted in its place. As leaders at different levels in the federal workforce, we are challenged to decide whether we will be blind or brave in the face of difference. In the words of Hobson, being blind means we pretend to not notice difference. Unfortunately, this can lead to ignoring the problems of discrimination and bias that continue to exist. On the other hand, being brave means we embrace diversity and are willing to engage in the difficult, yet meaningful conversations about differences.

At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), we are a group of people with varied disabilities, races, religions, sexual orientations, genders, ethnicities, national origins, socioeconomic levels, and educational backgrounds, among other things. One of the unique challenges we face is the collaborative nature of our work. It requires administrative, clinical, and scientific staff to work together for the greater good of the patients we serve. The differences that exist among us sometimes create unique challenges in fulfilling our mission. Collectively we strive "to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability."

Daily we encounter patients of all backgrounds who come through the doors of the Clinical Center depending on our joint commitment to ensure the most qualified team of professionals is in place to provide crucial care. Equally, patients and their family members who never set foot on our campus rely on our teams of qualified scientists and administrative professionals, in both the extramural and intramural communities, to bring them hope in often desperate situations. As we serve those who are ill, the demographic characteristics of a person are not of greatest importance. Rather, being properly trained for the job and capable of providing a high level of care matter most.

Given this, it is vitally important that when crafting our teams, we are willing to be courageous and embrace difference—different viewpoints, different experiences, and different appearances. This begins as early as the trainee level with the NIH’s aspiring talent in universities and institutions. A commitment to being brave in the face of our differences provides an opportunity for all to contribute to our great work. It fosters an environment where authenticity is welcomed and innovation blossoms.

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