A few months ago, I was invited to speak to a group of equine professionals about diversity, equity and inclusion. As an African American university president, with two out of three educational degrees in agriculture, I was asked to share with the predominantly White group of horse experts my perspectives on diversity.
My first objective, when engaging with anyone, is to find a way to connect. Connection is the foundational precursor for understanding the unfamiliar. As I looked at the intelligent faces gazing back in anticipation of my insight, it occurred to me that a confession was my segue to diversity. The path on which I could guide them to a different understanding. While they lived and breathed horses, I become uneasy in the presence of these majestic beasts. They are beautiful from afar, but you would never get me on one.
I am Chicago-born and bred. Horses were never a part of my life, education or world. No one ever introduced me to a horse. No one ever educated me on how to engage with a horse. No one ever took my hand and guided it from a horse's head to tail—down the mane, along the spine and across the backside—enlightening me on horses from a horse's perspective. No one ever taught me to communicate with a horse.
The members of this group were fluent in horse language. They understood a horse's energy. They connected and in turn, a trust formed between the two. I believe the same is true when people discuss race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, political affiliations and every other group of "other." If we do not seek to understand and speak the language of those different from ourselves, if we let our fear of the different hold us back, we will never connect, engage, understand or grow.
As a scientist, I know fear is a biochemical and emotional response possessed by all living creatures designed to alert us to harm or danger, physical or psychological, and necessary for the preservation of life. But not all things rise to the level of being feared. Fellow human beings who simply look different, dress different, speak different, live different, love different, think different, vote different are not by default fear worthy.
Our fears expose our vulnerabilities. They intensify our anxiety. They drive us to recede and retreat. Fears keep us locked inside ourselves. Fears keep us pinned inside unhealthy paradigms. Fears manifest perceptions that may not be realities. Fears silo us. Fear of the different will divide and destroy us.
If we remain afraid, fearful of touching the horse, fearful of each other, we will never learn to connect with anyone different than our perceived selves. We may observe from afar and even admire, but we will never appreciate those different than ourselves in a way that leads to respectful, valued and sustained relationships. Never connect with them. Never understand them. Never learn from them.
My confessional fear of horses, as a symbolic narrative to a discussion on diversity, connected with the equine experts. That connection would not have been possible if I allowed my fear to cause me to dislike, treat with disdain or reject horses, and to avoid those professionals who work with and care for them. In that moment, in that connection, their faces revealed the opening of their minds and together we found the beginning of a pathway to understanding that being different is not something to be feared but embraced.
President Ronald S. Rochon