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Diverse Backgrounds Foster Strong Teamwork

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Oregon Department of Transportation have something in common: both see diversity as a value to be protected and promoted within their organizations.

“Diversity is a huge part for me,” said Denise Feldbush, the Oregon representative for the U.S. Coast Guard Work-Life Program, a department that supports service members, civilian employees and their families.

“When someone comes to me, I look at a whole range of things. It could be that I have to recognize where this person is coming from, it could be their socioeconomic status or it could be their ethnicity.”

She said she has to take into consideration the diverse backgrounds so that she can give them the right resources at the right time to help them be successful.

“The Coast Guard recognizes that we have diversity,” she said. “We recognize that people from all walks of life are going to be represented, and part of the Coast Guard mission is to have a Coast Guard that represents all segments of society.”

Feldbush was joined Sunday by Petty Officer 1st Class O’Brien Starr-Hollow, a rescue swimmer with the Coast Guard, and Bill Jablonski, a project leader with Oregon Department of Transportation, for a panel discussion about promoting diversity in large organizations. The Lower Columbia Diversity Project hosted the presentation at the Judge Guy Boyington Building in Astoria.

Astoria City Councilor Drew Herzig, the new chairman of the project, introduced the panel for those in attendance.

The presentation introduced what the Coast Guard and ODOT provide in diversity training and their policies. The panel covered assaults and discrimination, and how it ultimately disrupts workplace cohesion. They also talked about how diversity ultimately enriches the work environment.

Feldbush said the challenges of promoting diversity stem from society being ever-changing and increasing in complexity.

“What the Coast Guard has done is to really take a look at the current needs of society and (do an) overhaul to meet those needs,” she said.

The Coast Guard’s Work-Life Program was created in 1992 and provides service members with support in child care, health care and other human services. The help allows service members to focus on their job with the Coast Guard instead of life’s many concerns, Feldbush said.

“What I do is give them the tools and resources that they need to do that,” she said.

For two weeks in March, workshops focusing on sexual assault prevention were provided at U.S. Coast Guard command centers along the Oregon Coast.

The workshops went into detail, with names of past perpetrators included, said Feldbush

“We talked about what sexual assault is and how to recognize this behavior,” she said, about the workshops.

Starr-Hollow, who started his career with Coast Guard on an icebreaker based in Seattle, said the structure of the military is top-down with rules and policy set from above, but with the bottom ranks contributing a lot, too.

“I find the bottom to be one of the most important parts of our structure,” he said. “That’s where everybody takes these policies and makes them reality.”

He brought a statement made by the Coast Guard admiral during a weekly address to service members.

“Let me tell you what the admiral said to us … ‘There are no bystanders in the Coast Guard. Our duty to respect our shipmates demands each of us to have the courage to take immediate action in the cases of sexual assault, hazing, harassment or discrimination.’”

Starr-Hollow also read from the antidiscrimination and harassment policy statement, which, he stated, had the new addition of sexual orientation after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2011.

He also talked about the general timeline of the military, with integration of African-Americans in 1948 and including women in 1973, with officer positions becoming open for women in 1978.

He said that the Coast Guard is taking steps with diversity councils to do outreach with communities that have “under-represented populations.”

“What we’re trying to do now is to kind of bring the Coast Guard into the rest of America, so people know who we are and what we do,” he said.

Starr-Hollow also talked about how discrimination and assault is not only tragic and awful, but also disrupts the cohesion of a military unit.

“We demand that everyone in our helicopter is focused on the job at hand,” he said.

He read from a woman pilot’s statement about why diversity matters in flight.

The statement, made by a lieutenant commander, said that it wasn’t always easy to articulate why diversity matters, but that the experience teaches people to use everyone to their maximum potential without shutting people out and shutting people down.

ODOTs sees diversity as core value

Jablonski, a project leader with ODOT in Astoria for 10 years, went through the training program that ODOT provides for its employees.

The training program began statewide in 2010 and Jablonski said ODOT recognizes diversity as a core value in delivering projects.

“We know that diversity is actually good for business,” he said, because it enriches the work experience and fosters mutual respect and teamwork.

ODOT put together a diversity program not only for the employees, but for the benefit of the overall community, he said.

Jablonski is a member of a training group for ODOT that oversees the diversity program. The group is made up of equal membership of men and women and of different ages, nationalities and backgrounds.

“Diversity helps us not only create unique solutions for our projects, but we need to be able to bring different people with different perspectives to the table.

“It just can’t be the same mentality that we had from 100 years ago,” he said.

The panel on Sunday was asked if the Coast Guard and ODOT required diversity training.

“A lot of our time is educating and informing,” Feldbush said. “A lot of that training is mandatory.”

She said that the Work-Life Program is trying to revamp the training so that it is more appealing and engaging.

“We’re trying to deliver training that is really meaningful,” she said.

Jablonski said that out of the roughly 4,000 people employed by ODOT, close to 3,000 have participated in diversity training. However, managers are the only ones required to do so.

“The training for the most part is voluntary, however, it is strongly encouraged by the managers,” Jablonski said.

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.

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