I was a teenager in 1963 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Half Korean, half Chinese, I was a minority among minorities, trying to live with the daily discomfort of bigotry while growing up in tough neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. It was a far cry from my earlier life in Hong Kong, where I was counted among the majority.
In the boroughs of New York I was constantly being reminded of how different I was. Yes, racism inevitably created scuffles. But growing up in New York wasn't just about racial tensions-it was also about enrichment. I learned to appreciate the dynamic cultures of people who came there from all over the world, and early on I began to think through the conundrum of difference and commonality, the dynamic of unity amid diversity.
As with most immigrants, my parents came to America for more opportunities for their children. Like King, they wanted their children (all children) not to be judged by how they looked, but by who they were and what they could do for humankind. With each birthday that I celebrate, I find myself thinking much more about King's dream, my parents' dream.
So how do we try to fulfill this vision? We should not and cannot address diversity without also addressing commonality. I truly believe that stressing one without the other is divisive. It is mindless political correctness to try to right a wrong by focusing only on fixing the wrong without also nurturing what's right. Diversity and commonality are yin and yang and represent a critical Zen balance.
This is why at St. Luke's Episcopal Health System we don't have a Diversity Advisory Council; we have a Diversity/Commonality Advisory Council-chaired by a health system executive vice president so it carries clout-where we examine what we can do to promote community-building while honoring the unique offerings and absolute value of each individual. One of the council's first actions was ensuring that a policy was followed that assigned caregivers to patients solely on qualifications, not on the arbitrary preference or prejudice of either our patients or caregivers.
While it is true that my Asian heritage is an integral part of who I am, it is not all of who I am, because throughout my life I have sought exposure to other cultures. The situation is similar for each member of our health system family and for the patients we serve. And yet, using myself as an example, a typical diversity program would recognize me as Asian, and ask that people come to know me as a person of Asian cultural heritage.
At St. Luke's we work through a process we call "ultimate diversity leadership" to define diversity beyond race, gender or age, so that it becomes inclusive of all people and their humanity. Through this approach, which is interwoven throughout our mission, values, and human resources systems (including organizational planning, performance management, compensation/benefits, employee communications and education), we try to take an approach to diversity based on individual relationships, not mere group identity.
Our approach to diversity is to value all God's children as individuals. When we talk about valuing people, we are referring to the patients, our reason for being; to our employees who are our most valuable asset; and to our physicians, our critical partners.
Our St. Luke's community, of course, is a microcosm of our larger community. King viewed the entire world as his community, a whole composed of distinct groups and distinct persons. It is not us vs. them; there is only us. In a practical way, it means that it's terrific that we have ethnic neighborhoods. But it is also important that those subcommunities get together on common ground.
As we struggle to make the promise of America come true, we recognize that the U.S. has never been and should never be a melting pot. It can be, however, a great mosaic where the beauty of each tile stands intact, but never alone. Assimilation for me was never about denying who I was, but instead about becoming a unique part of the whole. And my wife, Susan, and I have encouraged our three children to go forward in their lives accordingly. To help them on their way, we gave each of them an Asian middle name, underscoring their unique heritage and their membership in the larger American and global family. Indeed our first son's middle name is Sehmin, which means "citizen of the world." And we have taught them that the greatest and distinguishing gift of being human is the capacity to see beyond ourselves.
Modern science provides a compelling check on an emphasis on differences among people. In fact, from a genetic perspective, according to Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, all humans are Africans, either by current status or origin. Craig Venter of Celera Genomics also found that "people from different racial groups can be more genetically similar than individuals within the same racial group." In addition, Paabo says the genome we have inherited connects us to all other forms of life on earth.
Consider that we have approximately 30,000 genes, 223 of which appear to have descended directly from bacteria; that approximately 16% of our genes have similar functions to flies and worms; that 99.9% of our genes are the same as a mouse's; and that every person shares 99.9% of the same genetic code.
A tad humbling, isn't it?
Michael Jhin is president and chief executive officer of St. Luke's Episcopal Health System, Houston