September 2017
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Andy Curtis, Anaheim University, Anaheim, California, USA

[NOTE: This article has been reviewed by the SRIS leaders, and not copyedited by TESOL, due to its length.]

In "Tales from the Dark Side," one of my chapters in Color, Race and English Language Teaching (Curtis & Romney, 2006, pp. 11-22), I note that darkness is usually associated with badness, whereas lightness is generally associated with goodness. There are many reasons for these associations, going back to at least Biblical times. For example, more than 100 light/dark references can be found in the Bible, and in almost all of them Dark is Bad, Light is Good. For example: “For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5). Millennia later, the same color-coded connotations are still with us, for example, in the Star Wars movie franchise, which is one of the largest and most profitable in the world. As one of the infamously evil characters, Sheev Palpatine, says: “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural”. The power of the Affective Factor can also been seen here in the world of Star Wars, for example: “Individuals who used the dark side drew their power from darker emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, and aggression”. So, when a close, Canadian friend of mine (who is also a member of our SRIS) said to me recently, and I should add, playfully: “Oh, so you’ve gone to the dark side, eh?” I had to stop and think.

My SRIS friend was referring to the fact that, since recently rotating off the TESOL International Association’s Board of Directors, off the Association’s Executive Committee, and out of the presidential line after three years, I have been doing some consulting work for one of the largest financial services firms in North America. (It may be important to note that they are not a bank.) They approached me to help them develop their Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) programs in the USA and Canada. I agreed to work with them, partly as I made my three years back on the Board (2014-2017) a 20-hour a week, 50 weeks a year service leadership commitment. As a result, I did almost no paid work during those three years, but the main reason for working with this financial services firm is that I have been a client of theirs for more than 12 years. I came to be a client because, in the early 2000s, we went to all of the major banks where we live (Kingston, Ontario, Canada) and asked them about ‘Socially Responsible Investing’. The banks’ responses ranged from blank stares to polite smiles that spoke volumes, which sounded very much like: “Oh, you new immigrants, you’re welcome to Canada, of course, but you have so much to learn about how we do things here, and this ‘Socially Responsible Investing’ of which you speak is nothing to do with us”.

On the other hand, this particular financial services firm said: “You know what, we’ve heard of that [Socially Responsible Investing] and we don’t know much about it, but we’ll look into it, and get back to you”, which they did, after which I became a client of theirs. Lastly, I should add that this particular firm appears to be very much aligned with Peter Senge’s notion of a ‘learning organization’, which he defined as: “…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together” (1990, p. 3). Here, then, is a brief summary of some of the lessons that are emerging as this D&I project unfolds.

Differentness Vs Diversity

For a number of reasons, talking about diversity can be difficult. For example, when Brown, Smith and Jones or BSJ (a pseudonym) were looking for a consultant to help them develop their D&I programs, and my name was put forward, the question came up: How diverse is he? That may be an important question, but one that is difficult to answer because there are so many different kinds of diversity – from race, skin color, gender, age, and ethnicity, to sexual orientation, medical conditions, and diversity of (dis)abilities – any number of which can be embodied within the same individual. However, if the discussion can be framed in terms of differentness, then it is possible to address the unique individuality of the experience. Someone can be asked: Where you live and/or where you work, do the people around you look similar to each other but different from you? Do you believe that the people around you – at work, where you live, etc. – react and respond to you based on your apparent differentness from them/the majority?

Visible Vs Invisible Differentness

The limitation of these kinds of differentness questions is that they are based on being visibly different, on being a ‘visible minority’. Therefore, although differentness factors, such as race, color, gender, age, and ethnicity are often visible from afar – which we are calling ‘Differentness at a Distance’ or ‘Long-Distance Diversity’ – sexual orientation, for example, usually cannot be seen from far away. Then there are differentness factors such as medical conditions and diversity of (dis)abilities, that may or may not be visible, depending on whether the symptoms of a medical condition show, or on whether the person’s disability is more to do with physiological constraints, or with mental health, or both. The issue of visible vs. invisible differentness is important to BSJ as they are keen to recruit more financial advisors from the LGBT(Q) community, but as sexual orientation is not visible, and as employers are not usually allowed to ask about that, recruiting such financial advisors is going to be one of the challenges of including those who are less-visibly (or even in-visibly) different.

‘Positive Self-Interest’

‘Positive Self-interest’ might sound like a contradiction in terms, as ‘self interested’ is usually defined negatively, for example: “Motivated by one's personal interest or advantage, especially without regard for others” (Oxford English Dictionary, emphasis added) . However, in terms of “regard for others”, BSJ is acutely aware that greater diversity, of all kinds, in their workforce has many potential benefits, including a better ‘bottom line’, more innovation, and better decision-making, as well as the idea that ‘It’s the right thing to do’. In my experience, it is not enough to tell employers – that includes some of the schools, colleges and universities that I have worked with – that their workforces should be more diverse because ‘It’s the right thing to do’. In that case, a number of those employers nod thoughtfully, then appear to forget all about D&I, as soon as I leave the room. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind. But BSJ is one of the largest and most successful financial services firms in North America, and they realize that to stay at the top, they must invest time, money and other resources into building a more diverse workforce – to go beyond the rhetoric of D&I, to the reality.

Unpacking the Language

One of the mantras of BSJ is “Words Matter”, which is a phrase that I have seen on the powerpoint slides in many of the presentations given by their financial advisors, written down in notes, put up on noticeboards, etc. For some reason – probably my personal biases and prejudices – I did not expect a financial services firm to be so acutely aware of the power of language. When I am asked what I do, I often reply: “I do language for a living”, as, by definition, language is the basis of everything language teachers and learners do. I was then, pleasantly surprised to have my view of this particular world, of financial services, challenged. As a result of BSJ’s focus on language, diversity and inclusion, we are spending time at BSJ looking closely and carefully at what is meant and understood, within the organization, by those terms, as well as related terms such as ‘minority’, ‘majority’, and ‘under-represented’.

Making the Biological Case for D&I

As I have noted above, in my experience, arguing for D&I on the basis that ‘It’s the right thing to do’ can have little or no effect, beyond some level of raising awareness that this is an area that an organization needs to address. As reflective practitioners, we know that awareness is an important starting point, but if that awareness does not translate into change – from changing understanding to changing practices – then we cannot move beyond the starting point. Therefore, as I also noted above, a degree of self-interest, in terms of the bottom line – or whatever it is that is motivating real change in terms of D&I – can be a positive force. However, one of the things that I have added to the discussions at BSJ (and elsewhere) is the idea that, biologically speaking, ‘Purity is Death. Diversity is Life’.

Drawing on my years working in hospitals in the U.K, as a Medical Science Officer, I am able to show that a 100% pure strain of any living thing has what we used to call, in biomedical science, Zero Environmental Adaptability. Consequently, even the smallest change in the environment – a cough or a sneeze, or a change in the room temperature, even of a small degree – results in death. The idea that ‘Purity is Death. Diversity is Life’ is not a political slogan, but a Fact of Life, on every biological level – from the cell, to the organ, to entire metabolic systems – has been the most powerful of all of the D&I models, metaphors and analogies that I have presented. As I noted at the beginning of this article, one of the Core Values of the TESOL International Association is “Respect for diversity”, but it is not only language teaching and learning organizations that are committed to D&I. It is, therefore, helpful to look further afield, to see what other kinds of organizations are doing to help create more diverse and inclusive workplaces and communities of practice.

Concluding Comments

To expand on the opening discussion of light and dark, not only may dark-skinned people suffer as a result of such Biblical color-coding, but black-and-white may also be a false dichotomy, like labeling people as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. An essential aspect of helping to create more diverse and inclusive communities is recognizing our own biases and prejudices, as those do not make us ‘bad people’, just ‘people’, so denying those aspects of ourselves only makes matters worse. I am, therefore, grateful to BSJ for this opportunity to expand my view of their world, and to realize that, although the Big Banks certainly play a central role in the problems of socioeconomic inequity globally, there are some financial institutions that are committed to ideals similar to those of us in our TESOL world. Within that world, we may sometimes forget that that there may be many organizations that are not not-for-profit educational institutions, but which may nonetheless be working to make the world a better place, through their own D&I programs and initiatives.


Curtis, A. & Romney. M. (Eds.). (2006). Color, race and English language teaching: Shades of meaning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Andy Curtis received his M.A. in Applied Linguistics, and his Ph.D. in International Education, from the University of York, England. From 2015 to 2016, Andy served as the 50th President of the TESOL International Association. He is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works as a consultant for learning organizations worldwide.

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