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Jax Daily Record Monday, Feb. 11, 201312:00 PM EST

Obstacles or opportunities?

by: The Jacksonville Bar Association President Ray Driver

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the United States, confined to a wheelchair. Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, Louisiana governor, son of immigrants from India. Anh "Joseph" Quang Cao, former U.S. representative, first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress. Sandra Day O'Connor, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice, first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Judy May Chu, U.S. representative, first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress. Thomas Gore, former U.S. senator, blind. Karol Corbin Walker, past president of the New Jersey State Bar Association and current president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, first African-American woman to serve in both positions.

The list continues. You can fill it with household names or people who are not known outside of close circles.

They all have one thing in common: they overcame what some view as insurmountable obstacles.

That may be true, but I believe they also saw opportunities through those obstacles. Why? Because they are leaders.

Individuals like those listed show us it doesn't matter what your race or gender is. It doesn't matter if you are disabled. It doesn't matter where you came from. What matters is where you want to end up.

Walker was the keynote speaker at our January meeting and is a shining example of creating opportunities out of obstacles. She will tell you it was hard for an African-American woman to fulfill her dream of becoming a lawyer. Not only that, she created opportunities to become a leader in her profession.

According to Walker, "the only limitations that anyone has are those they place on themselves. Do not become distracted by minor obstacles which, if you stay the course, you will overcome."

As we observe Black History Month during February, it's a great time to remember how important diversity is to our country and our workplace. It's important to remember we all come from immigrant backgrounds and we all played a part in creating the ultimate "melting pot," yet it was not easy.

Since colonial times, ethnic discrimination has existed. Legally sanctioned racism was imposed on Native Americans, African-Americans and Asian-Americans.

Native Americans were considered savages and were forced into indentured servitude.

African-Americans were brought to the New World as slaves and had no rights.

Asian-Americans who came to the United States during the gold rush had a Foreign Miners Tax imposed on them and were attacked and sometimes murdered if they refused to pay. Soon after that, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was enacted barring Chinese immigration and forbidding citizenship to them and their American-born children.

Today, Latin Americans and others have struggles.

Fortunately, through many political battles and landmark decisions, we have moved toward appreciating the differences in our cultures and heritages rather than making them impediments to progress.

Those battles and decisions, along with the perseverance of many individuals, have produced leaders from many different ethnic origins.

However, ethnic origin is just one piece of the pie when you consider diversity in the workplace. True diversity is about understanding and valuing the differences in people as individuals. True diversity includes not only people of different ethnic origins, but also includes people of different ages, educational backgrounds, gender, physical abilities, religious beliefs and sexual preferences, among others. Whatever makes you different from the person in the office next to you is what makes you diverse.

Now, don't confuse the emergence of diversity in the workplace with affirmative action.

Affirmative action is a program put into effect following the civil rights movement. Grounded in social and moral responsibility, it requires certain employers to provide an equal opportunity to all employees despite their gender or race. These legal obligations were adopted to increase representation of those who previously were underrepresented. Affirmative action presents opportunity while diversity encourages success.

So what role does diversity have in the business world?

Diversity in the workplace is inclusive in that people with different backgrounds and talents work toward a common goal.

Bringing those with diverse ideas together in problem-solving and decision-making provides a feeling of inclusion and belonging, which can improve morale. It creates confidence that allows an individual to challenge himself or herself, thereby identifying leaders. It encourages success.

We continue to become a more and more diverse country. Looking at the 2010 U.S. Census, it is apparent there is a shift in the makeup of our population.

According to the census findings, "more than half of the growth in the total population of the United States between 2000 and 2010 was due to the increase in the Hispanic population."

The census also showed more women are obtaining a higher education, which translates into the desire to be successful in the workforce. Those are just microcosms of what is happening.

The world is changing and it is changing fast — we better pay attention.

It was a long, hard road to arrive where we are and the road will continue. Overcoming the obstacles of discrimination, history has produced many great success stories. As we help write the next chapter, we must continue to overcome stereotypes and perception. We need to identify our leaders, regardless of their backgrounds, and find opportunities for them to lead instead of creating obstacles. In many instances, there are laws designed to help, but we should rely on common sense, too.

As we become more and more global, accepting and embracing diversity, frankly, is smart business. And, with diversity in our workforce, everyone can make a difference.

The Bar is open. Come make a difference!

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