Theory & Philosophy

The National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) has conducted peer training to transform communities and organizations around the world. Below are the operational assumptions underlying NCBI programs:

  • Training teams of peer leaders is the most effective way to empower people to take leadership in reducing racism and other forms of discrimination.

  • NCBI has found that administrators and staff often experience powerlessness in the face of inter-group tension. For many the issues are so overwhelming that it has been difficult to know how to begin. Often the greatest obstacle to taking action to address racism and other forms of discrimination is the sense that individual initiatives have a minimal effect in light of the enormity of the problem. NCBI’s strategy to overcome this key obstacle is to train a corps of employees, who reclaim power by leading concrete, replicable diversity training workshops in a variety of work settings. By coaching this group to think of themselves as diversity training leaders, NCBI builds a team that becomes a catalyst to effect deeper institutional changes.

    Encouraging the development of peer leadership teams to conduct diversity training workshops is not only an effective organizational strategy, but it is also an effective teaching method for training leaders. When participants come to a training program with the assumption that they are preparing to lead diversity training workshops, their learning is both rapid and profound. The planning and conducting of the workshops reinforce the learning. The effective leading of diversity training workshops requires each peer leader to be open to examining and working through his/her own prejudices. It has often been observed that one learns best by teaching. The peer group leadership of diversity training workshops operates on a similar principle: one learns best by leading.

  • Programs to welcome diversity require an ongoing institutional effort.

  • Too often the only system-wide effort to address diversity issues are briefings concerning civil rights statutes. More needs to be done. Utilizing an in-house training team to conduct ongoing diversity training programs allows both public and private organizations to respond more effectively to the issues of discrimination. First, the training team is a readily available resource that can be called upon at any time. Second, the training team can respond to the unique needs of a number of different constituencies, such as senior managers, part-time employees, displaced workers, line staff, and support service providers. Third, the training team, by including members of diverse backgrounds, is able to respond to concerns that involve particular groups as well as to concerns that involve the entire workforce (for example, between women and men; between labor and management). The most effective training teams include the participation of all employees, from the most senior person to the most recent recruit.

  • The establishment of proactive training programs that build strong inter-group relations are more effective than programs that respond to specific incidents of racism or crises.

  • There is a tendency to launch diversity training programs following a painful series of racial incidents. Although this response is understandable, and at times appropriate, one may be left with the false impression that the primary goal of diversity training work is to curtail overt acts of bigotry. An effective diversity training program, however, must be much more than crisis intervention. The workplace offers a powerful opportunity for human beings from diverse backgrounds to learn how to live together. For many, the time at work may be the first and only time to come into close contact with others whom they do not select. Public institutions and private corporations can become models for an increasingly polarized society by developing deliberate, systemic plans of action that foster healthy inter-group relations among all segments of the workforce.

    A related tendency has been to view diversity training programs primarily as a tool to manage a public relations problem. Many administrators have been reluctant to implement programs on welcoming diversity, since the very establishment of such programs may be perceived as the admission of a serious racial problem. The advantages of launching positive, proactive diversity training have often been overlooked. Rather than developing a response under pressure following a racial incident, it is far wiser to foster a climate that views the diversity among employees as a valued asset. The peer training model offers a constructive preventive alternative to crisis intervention.

  • Programs that welcome diversity need to include all of the visible and invisible differences found in a workplace or community.

  • Racism, particularly in regard to African-Americans, must always be a primary focus of any diversity training program. In addition, a major institutional effort to welcome diversity should be inclusive of the many visible and invisible differences among employees, including nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, physical challenges, age, and socio-economic class. For example, NCBI has learned to raise social class issues at all of its diversity and peer training programs. Many people have little understanding of the ways in which their class backgrounds have shaped their views of the world and their interactions with others. Since racism and classism are so closely related, whenever the issues of class are addressed NCBI has discovered that the dynamics of racism have been better understood.

    One of the more controversial issues in diversity training work is whether to address a range of discrimination issues or to focus solely on racism. The concern of many anti-racism activists is that the inclusion of other issues can be used as a convenient tactic to avoid the more difficult work on racism. NCBI has found that the effectiveness of anti-racism work is actually enhanced by including a discussion of other institutionalized forms of discrimination. One of the insidious effects of racism is the isolation experienced by many people of color. A common reaction from many people of color who have participated in NCBI diversity training programs that have included a diverse range of issues is the expression of relief at knowing that they are not the only ones who have experienced serious discrimination.

  • Diversity training programs that are based on guilt, moralizing, or condemnation often rigidify prejudicial attitudes.

  • Some people respond negatively — some even with hostility — to diversity training programs. It is important not to assume that the problem rests only with the employees. The resistance is often a response to confrontational programs that tend to pressure administrators and workers into admitting that they are racists. A great challenge in doing anti-racism work is avoiding two extremes: if people are targeted and required to label themselves as racists, sexists, etc. they can quickly become defensive and thereby lost to the work; if the programs are too comfortable, the hard issues never get raised and the unaware racism goes unchallenged. NCBI’s diversity training workshop model strives for a proper balance by assisting participants to take risks and to raise tough issues without violating their own sense of integrity and self-worth.

  • Anti-racism programs are most effectively conducted with a hopeful, upbeat tone.

  • The effects of discrimination are serious, and therefore many mistakenly assume that effective anti-racism work requires a deadly serious approach. In fact, the most empowering NCBI programs, where participants left eager to fight against institutionalized racism, have always included cheering and laughter alongside more sober moments. When people come to a diversity training workshop motivated by fear or painful emotion they are less able to continue taking powerful leadership. Though the needs are great, NCBI discourages mandatory diversity training programs for employees. Resistant participants undermine the spirit of the work, whereas voluntary participation is consistent with the desired upbeat tone encouraged in all aspects of the program.

    These operational assumptions have demonstrated their effectiveness over more than two decades. In that time, NCBI has successfully trained tens of thousands worldwide and established teams of leaders in scores of communities, college and university campuses, and organizations.