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Promoting a Sense of Belonging: An Interview with Antonio Farias

Podcast Transcript

From University of Florida Training & Organizational Development, this is Reflections on Leadership.

Welcome to Reflections on Leadership, a podcast where we explore why leadership matters in higher education and what great leadership looks like at the University of Florida. I’m your host, Scott Blades, Assistant Director with Training and Organizational Development.  In this episode, Tricia Bachus, Irma Alvarez, and I interview Antonio Farias, UF’s Chief Diversity Officer.  Antonio talks to us about his vision for diversity and inclusion at UF and highlights the importance of leaders promoting a sense of belonging.

BLADES: Welcome, Antonio. Thanks so much for joining us today. At the beginning of each of your podcast episodes, you always start with the same great question, and we’d love to hear how you would answer that same great question. So what is your story of belonging?

FARIAS: Thanks, Scott and thanks for inviting me. So you’re going to turn the mirror on me and ask me the same question. It’s actually the hardest question that I have to ask myself at times, and I think that partly that’s why I ask others because I, for me, this quest for belonging has been a lifelong pursuit. And as I ask the question, it’s because I’m trying to learn what belonging means and I learn it through others that give me their sense, their slice of the world. For me if I had to boil it down, belonging is situated not in place but in teams and in people. I think I learned that early on in life. For me, whether it was working as a jet mechanic on a New Jersey tarmac or in a foxhole in the army, it was all about the people around me and creating a sense of…I don’t want to say family because we weren’t always family and we always didn’t really like each other, but we respected each other enough to do the task.

For me belonging has to do with getting people around you that are mission driven along the same task and actually getting skin in the game and feeling like you’re really working hard at something and accomplishing something and failing at it and then getting up and having people pick you up, dust you off, and carry you along the way. For me, that’s the sense of belonging at the personal level. How that plays out at the macro level, I think is the challenge that we have in terms of such a big and complex university like the University of Florida.

BACHUS: So given that, at UF, what is your vision for diversity, inclusion and equity, and what is success going to look like?

FARIAS: That’s a great question. What does success look like? That’s the question I ask people: What is the end goal? Right? You start with the end in mind and then we build backwards. All of us have definitions of what diversity, equity and inclusion mean. I try not to share those because we need to co-build this. As the Chief Diversity Officer, particularly as the inaugural Chief Diversity Officer, there is this sense in this organization that somehow I come with all the knowledge. I’m somehow the guru of this process. For me it’s always a lifelong journey. I succeeded certain times and I’ve gotten good at it over the last 16-17 years being a CDO in different places, and at the same time, if I’ve been successful at all, it’s been because of the people around me. I’ve gathered the teams together to say we’re going to co-build something and then when I leave, we don’t reset. That’s the ideal right. If I do something here, and it’s driven by a cult of personality, whether it’s the cult of Antonio or whatever it is, then I leave. Eventually I will leave. We all leave. Then it goes to reset because somehow we have lost something, right?

My ideal is that we define what diversity means to us at the University of Florida. We define what equity means here. We define what inclusion means, and by we, I mean faculty, staff, students, our community that surrounds us. It should not be lost to us that we are a land grant institution and our goal, our ethos is… I go back to Senator Morrill’s ethos about our purpose, which is to “educate the sons and daughters of toil.” Right? That was 1862. In 2019, what does it mean to educate the sons and daughters of toil? We have to sort of rethink that. So for me, diversity, if you pin me against the wall, it’s all the differences that we bring through our various identities, and depending on what situation you find yourself as a human being in any given moment in your day, one identity will rise above the other and will take precedence over something. Something that you read, something that you engage with, will trigger a different identity that will sort of rise up or lower. The central identity of my life for the last 18 years has been father, above all else, to my daughter. That has been the principal identity that I have gathered. It’s not the only identity, but it’s one of the ones that when I don’t pull my load at home, as a male, gender becomes my my sort of my main identity. My wife will either call me out, or I’ll call myself out, or most recently, my daughter calls me out. So we do have to have definitions and we will create the definitions as a collective. I am really averse to jargon. I don’t like jargon. Jargon is just another exclusionary way of keeping people who have great ideas from getting into the conversation. We are fantastic in higher education at using jargon to sort of create power differentials. If I can explain to my friends that are not academics and I can explain to my mom what diversity means, if I can translate it even into Spanish, then I know I’m onto something. Because at the end, I’m less concerned about the terms, and I’m more concerned about the experience. If it boils down to one word, it’s this sense of belonging.

What is belonging mean to you at UF? What does it mean at the micro level in the current state that we are in 2019? And what does it mean as we grow into an institution for the next 30 years, as we sort of regenerate our faculty, regenerate our curriculum, regenerate our student body? We have to be moving towards something, and I think aspirational goals are critical. We do need to sort of have some sort of level of measurement because as we all know in the room, what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done. So all to say that, whatever we do it has to be collectively done so that when people retire, move on, hit the lottery, take a bus to Key West, that the mission continues. That is really what I am most concerned about. At the back of my head, I’ve always considered myself a servant leader, and I believe that a land grant institution is a servant university. So servant leaders are the ones that serve a servant university. And if that’s the case, then it has to be more than about my opinion or my definitions and more about what is our collective.

ALVAREZ: So Antonio, we know that you are a big proponent of crucial conversations. What value do you see in these types of conversations for promoting diversity, equity and inclusion at UF?

FARIAS: That is a great question, Irma. It’s the foundation. If we don’t know how to, and we don’t, know how to have conversations. If we think back to, if we were raised in the United States, we think back to our high school days. How did we have conversations? What we were taught initially was debates. We have a debate club, and you come forward, you give your set of skills, your set of facts, and your research that you did, and you did it with this level of gravitas. And it was part performance, part facts, part charisma, and there was always a zero sum. Somebody won and somebody lost. We take that forward into what we are as a country. To the nth degree that, what do we teach in law school? Zero sum. What do we teach in politics? Zero sum nowadays. I’m less interested in the winner take all and more about how do we create a collaborative sort of understanding of what our future is and what our democracy is. So in order to do that, I think we need to empower people to have conversations about the things that matter most in our lives and the things that really get us heated up. The things that sort of trigger our reptilian brain that make us either go into fight, flight or freeze.

Crucial conversations is just a way of giving people the tools in their tool belt that then they can use when they need it most which is when the blood sort of drains from your brain and you start going into some sort of level of either looking for safety or attacking people because you feel unsafe and therefore you use attack mode in order to sort of stay safe in your armored sort of world. I get asked a lot, when are we going to have conversations about race? My concern with that impetus is that we’ve all had conversations about race, about gender, you name all of the sort of topics that are most crucial and yet we all fail at some level at having those conversations. I believe that it’s partly because we don’t have the tools in order to have those conversations where we can actually come to the room, create a safe environment where we can put our knowledge into the room, and then have real, engaged discussions over it. These conversations can get heated. I’m not a big believer in “everyone has to keep a low tone.” You know democracy is not civil at times, so I’m not saying that we need to have this level of respectability where we simply… But we have to at least acknowledge that dignity and respect cannot be violated in a conversation if we really are about having a conversation. If we’re really about just winning, then that’s a different story. All bets are off. So for me, having crucial conversations is simply the bedrock to having much more difficult conversations. We’re always told two things: You’re not supposed to talk about are religion and politics. Well also the other thing that we are not supposed to talk about, which we don’t even talk about not talking about, is things like race. So if we really want to have those conversations, we desperately need to have them in this country because, guess what, we’re having them all the time, we’re just not having them with each other. We’re having them in our echo chambers, where we feel safe. If we’re going to have them across our ideologies, across our belief systems, across our identities, then we have to have at least common ground rules and I believe that this concept of crucial conversations and the tools that it gives, allow us to sort of have a common building frame.

BLADES: In our interactions with you, you’ve talked about the importance of creating community and a flattened hierarchy at UF. Can you explain to our listeners what these concepts mean to you?

FARIAS: Yeah. And I give a lot of credit to Ann Christiano, who gave me a book called New Power. Phenomenal book. If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage you to. I was not always a prophet of flat networks. Before I got to UF, I had gotten burned enough and taken enough hits from being an old school hierarchy sort of person, that I realized something’s off. We’re entering a level of discussion in this country particularly with emerging generations, Millennials and Gen Zs, and we’re not having discussions with them. We’re attacking them in many ways. We’re making them into caricatures and they’re trying to tell us something. And for me that book just embodies a lot of these concepts about how do you have conversations that are not hierarchical but are close to horizontal. I say close to horizontal because the ideal is a horizontal. Every time I sort of talk about horizontal, people agree, and yet they still want to go back to some sort of hierarchy. They’ll be like, “Okay Antonio, we get it. Yeah, that sounds fantastic.” And then they’re like, “What should we do?” I’m like, “Okay you didn’t listen because you’re still asking me as the authority. You’ve assumed that I’m the authority figure and you’re asking me for permission.” That’s still a hierarchy.

So it’s something that, thinking back throughout my life, it’s something that I’ve realized that I’ve been practicing for a while. Whether I was a lead mechanic working for Eastern or Pan Am, I ran teams at the age of 19 where there were–and this was men because at the time unfortunately it was all men mostly as the jet mechanics of the world at the time–I ran teams of men that were twice my age. They had families and mortgages and everything else. And how do you run something like that as a 19-year-old with men that have real experience and have had experience for like 10-20 years? How do you establish that authority? And it really is about moving away from “I’m the lead mechanic because that’s the little tag on my vest” to “I’m here to help us all accomplish the mission.” What is the mission? The mission at that point was get those airplanes in the air, make sure they’re safe so that they don’t fall out of the sky and massive amounts of people die. And in the military it was the same thing. How do you get people to work together? We think that the military is the most hierarchical organizations in the world. And it’s false. From the outside it seems that way. We think prisons and the military are the most hierarchy based. And once you’re in it, you realize there’s a lot of horizontals.

What the military has found out in the last 15 or so years, fighting these forever wars is that the old way doesn’t work anymore. So where have we learned that? You look at some of the top leaders, military leaders like General McChrystal. What they realized is they needed to look at how the enemy was functioning. So there’s some really good interesting work out there about how they actually studied al-Qaeda, and they understood how these cell-networked organizations actually had an incredible amount of resiliency because they weren’t hierarchically based and they’ve adapted. By adapting, they were able to start sort of changing the tide. Now that’s ironic at times when you hear military leaders talking about what we learned from a terrorist organization, and yet again it’s not about the philosophy, it’s about how the reality of a world is happening right now. We see that in this country. We see with the new social movements that are happening in this country, they are very flat organizations. The old way of doing social justice or civil rights was you had this charismatic leader. And we know what happened to all those charismatic leaders, right? They ended up dead, assassinated, murdered. So we evolved. We have evolved to the point where now activism is very decentralized and because it’s decentralized and there isn’t one sort of leader that if you take that leader out or there’s a scandal around that leader that everything falls apart. So we need to be as a higher education institution sort of adaptive in the same way of not thinking of this as there’s a president, there’s a cabinet, there’s deans. And then there’s this siloed effect that we call decentralization. If we always wait for permission to come up and down in a place that is ninety thousand human beings, it’s going to take a really long time to enact action. And the reality is that we have power at all levels of the institution to make changes. To me culture again goes back to that definition. What is culture? To me, culture is really simple. Culture is each individual’s values being enacted at work. So if we can change people to enact their values towards something that’s more than themselves, greater good, then we can start changing process.

BACHUS: So we know that you use the diversity liaisons on campus. Can you tell us a little bit more about their role and how they’re going to be serving as the change agents for transforming the culture at UF?

FARIAS: Thanks, Tricia. They are the key to success. I call them the team of teams. There’s 32 of them. If you’re curious about who they are, if you go to a cdo.ufl.edu, you’ll see a little tab that says “Campus Diversity Liaisons,” and you can click on that and you’ll see photos of them, their contact information. You can also get some bios on them eventually. They are all embedded in every single college and business unit around the campus and they’re strategically situated within the leadership teams of all the various units. And that’s really important. The old way of doing this kind of work was we got a coalition of those that were interested or curious and had maybe some expertise, and we created task forces, we created committees, with no organizational authority other than their voice. Then whatever we came out with, some sort of report, some sort of strategy, then had to be funneled into some authority that then moved up through the food chain. Everyone sort of took it apart, made their wordsmithing, it became less and less of what it initially was, till eventually it got approved at the highest levels and then it made its way back down. By then you lose energy, you lose people’s sense of will, and whatever the issue is, has already passed potentially. This is a much more nimble organization going back to the networked approach. The initial phase of the network is this: Put them in the right place, give them the authority because they already have it built in, to change where we need to change. So if things are happening live, like right now we’re in a hiring phase for faculty, we’re in the Faculty 500. We don’t need to have one master strategy for hiring. We can start doing that at the college level, at the business unit level, as we’re all sharing effective practices. We can turn dials and we can start changing our processes on the fly, so we don’t need to wait for… The old way was well we’ll funnel it up, go to HR, and then from there, it’ll get redistributed. We don’t need to do that anymore. I call it freedom within the framework. So we give people enough freedom that within that framework, they can navigate on their own. So these 32 human beings, what we’re doing right now is really professionally developing, not so much their diversity, equity or inclusion chops, that’s something that that can be either learned or they already have it, what we’re working on is developing their change management chops.

How do you change an organization? How do you work within an organization to do the hardest thing possible? Change is the hardest thing. We know it viscerally because how many of us say that we want to lose five pounds on New Year’s Day? And then two weeks later we’re eating deep fried Twinkies, which are tasty, right? And we’re actually going the opposite direction. So change is very hard. Getting folks to understand how change happens at the organizational level, when we aren’t necessarily trained to do that, is even harder. So my initial goal is bring the team together. Actually create a team, because right now, initially, they weren’t necessarily a team. It’s 32 human beings that have come together under an umbrella that says, “You have this. You’ve been anointed. You’ve been appointed. You’ve been hired into this position. Now how do you work together?” And again, if they always look to me to be, “Tell us what to do, Antonio,” I have failed. So we’re doing different strategies. Tricia, you and Irma have been phenomenal. You’ve come in, you’ve seen them. You’ve done some off sites with us to get us to start teaming.

This concept of teaming is really important and being honest with ourselves and allowing experimentation to happen, which comes out of my experience. Again, my background is you have to actually get either dirty or wet–whatever the metaphor is–and trust that people are not going to swat you because you’ve made a mistake. There’s got to be a level of safety in that room that people are willing to take risks, and once they’re willing to take risks, now we can applaud what we’re supposed to be doing. The whole purpose of diversity at the end of the day is to bring all of those thoughts that we bring, that diversity of thought that comes from all angles of how we were raised because of our various identities and where we were raised, to the table to say this is such a wacky idea that I feel OK bringing it to the table and that is the wacky idea that is going to shift the culture, that is going to innovate, that is going to create a better product. What’s that product? A better student. A better antivirus. You name it. But unless people feel like they’re part of a team, it’s not going to happen. So these liaisons are the first hub if you will. And then from that hub, they will replicate the network within their college or business unit and they’ll continue to replicate. And the goal is to tie into whatever networks we already have. The challenge, because this isn’t easy, we don’t have models like this in higher education. They just don’t exist. We have the old models.

The challenge is getting people to believe. Getting people to actually actualize some of these practices. And then the biggest challenge I think is the communication network that we have to do. The old way of communicating is send an email. It comes from the top, it cascades down. There isn’t an interactive process. So how do we create a nimble communication strategy so that information is constantly flowing back and forth? And then of course I think another challenge is that 25 percent of our population rotates every year. We lose 25 percent of our students. So within three or four years, we have an entire population of 40,000 students, of human beings, creative dynamic young people that have never experienced what we did for the last four years. And honestly their predilection might be “what have you done for me lately?” Because you have these great centers. You have all these initiatives, but this is my reality. And how are you reacting to my reality? So it has to be nimble enough that we all are constantly evolving. Now that’s really tough to have that mindset that we are never there, wherever there is. But I think it’s also the realistic reality of what these concepts of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice mean. There isn’t a “we finally got there.” Because at the end of the day, this is not cookie cutter. This is not “let’s change the crayon box and bring in more of X, Y and Z demographic and then we’re done.” That’s phase one. We bring demographics into the organization because those various demographics bring us a different mindset because of lived experiences, which allow us to have more innovative ideas that create innovation about things that we have no idea we need in the future. So that is constantly evolving. I always equate it to this concept of technology. Now we’ve been acclimated that every couple of years we get a new computer, and if we don’t get a new computer in like three or four years, we’re always like “when’s my next cycle? When am I getting a new computer?” No one says, “Well just give us new computers and then go away and stop bothering and stop asking for more money for new computers.” It’s the same thing with the complexity of humans. But yet at the same time, we don’t value that complexity of humans in the same way we value things that are inert like a computer box.

ALVAREZ: So how can leaders promote a sense of belonging for their colleagues and those they serve and why is this important?

FARIAS: Nothing is more important than the tone and the environment that a leader creates. Everything can just come to a full halt with just a couple of missteps. To me leaders are just people that have been had been gifted the privilege of stepping into the spotlight for a moment in order to serve others. The old model is a leader is at the very top and everybody else cascades down into this pyramid. The model that I look at is, which is the servant leadership model, inverted. The leader is at the bottom and everybody is above them. And my role as a servant leader is to serve everyone else.

I learned this viscerally when I was in the military. The leader always ate last. If you’re getting something, then you are always the last one to get it. You have to make sure that everybody else is taken care of until you go forward. Flip side is, if there’s blame to take, you always go first, because at the end of the day, accountability is yours. You are responsible. You will be given the trust by whatever it is. For us as the University of Florida, it’s taxpayers that have given us the trust to take care of their students, and the wherewithal in order to create a new Florida, a new citizenry for Florida. I’m guilty of my own sort of “thou shalt not write what servant leadership means.” A servant leader is someone that can be vulnerable. If you had to pin me on what is a servant leader, it’s someone that doesn’t armor up and give the perception that they are impenetrable, that they know all the answers.

There’s this concept that there are things you know, there are things you don’t know, and then we forget that there are things we don’t know we don’t know. A servant leader and a vulnerable leader will always be open, have that third ear open to what I don’t know I don’t know. What are my blind spots? Those blind spots come up as biases, as missteps. So in order to be vulnerable you have to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be able to own your mistakes. You have to be able to apologize in an authentic way, and you have to be able, at the end of the day, make the room safe. If the room isn’t safe and I’m just talking a good talk, then no one is going to contribute. As an example, the leader that comes in and says “I want us all to work on this project together and I value all your opinions” and then goes on for 10 minutes giving you his or her opinion and even pounding the desk for emphasize, and then leans back and says, “But I’m really here to listen to your point of view and I’d like you to share it.” You’re not sharing. It’s clear in our minds that we are here to support your vision now as opposed to being here to contribute something that will potentially create something that doesn’t exist. So for me, the leader sets the tone. The leader sets the parameters, sets the tempo, and then gets the hell out of the way after they’ve created a safe environment for people to share so that we can actually create something that we have no idea what’s going to come out of our mouths.

BLADES: Well, thanks so much, Antonio, for speaking with us today. It was certainly a pleasure.

FARIAS: Scott, Irma, Tricia. Pleasure was all mine. Thank you for inviting me.

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