The Minority Experience, Adrian Pei. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.
Summary: A book that explores the minority experience in organizations and how organizations can meet these challenges redemptively.
Being a minority is not a mere matter of numbers but an emotional experience that is about pain, about power, and who holds it, and about the past, a history and accumulation of experiences. Adrian Pei maintains that understanding these realities of pain, power, and the past are crucial to understanding and beginning to address the minority experience. He writes out of his experience as an Asian-American working within Epic, the Asian-American ministry of Cru, eventually serving as their national director of leadership development before moving into a consultant role in organizational development.
The first part of the book focuses on the emotional experience of being a minority in an organization. He describes the pain of self-doubt (“Am I the problem?”), the internalizing of pain and shame. Pei describes an experience with a leader during new staff training, and a conversation with that leader ten years later where he was able to both speak out and be listened to. He describes the inequities of power often unconsciously built into systems that attempt to domesticate minorities, to make them “fit in.” He also helps us understand how every minority has a past that colors current experience. Latinos, particularly in the southwest US saw the white United States take their country from Mexico and them reject them, wishing them south of the “new” border. Asian-Americans came as cheap and expendable labor on the Trans-Continental railroad. Blacks came against their will as slaves. Native peoples endured the seizure of their land, and then pejorative portrayals in media and even sports logos. To continue to try to step up when one is put down is wearying, another part of the history of the past that shapes the present.
Organizations often want to skip over issues of pain, power, and the past, but before doing anything else, it is crucial to sit with them, not rush to “solve” them. Understanding pain can lead to compassion, understanding power can lead to advocacy, and understanding the past can lead to wisdom. Part Two then begins to address the change process in organizations from this base. Pei outlines a seven step change process:
- Step One: Why change or diversify?
- Step Two: Who will lead our change process?
- Step Three: Make an organizational assessment.
- Step Four: What is the goal and the problem?
- Step Five: Prepare for change.
- Step Six: Execute Change.
- Step Seven: Internalize Change.
Pei offers detailed principles, questions, and examples for each step. Then he goes back to pain, power, and the past and in detail discusses how we might see pain with eyes of compassion, steward power with the hands of advocacy, and reframe the past with a heart of wisdom. His conclusion draws hope from the narrative of Deuteronomy. God led Israel through pain for forty years so they could eat food in comfort in the land. God led them through power in the experience of deliverance from slavery so they would remember who gave them their freedom. God took them from a small and insignificant past to be great in number. This gives him hope as he works with organizations, even in our polarized society.
Perhaps the most powerful word for me as someone senior in age from a majority culture is the word to sit with those who experience pain, deficits in power, and a past history and just listen. It’s so tempting to jump in and try to relate comparable experiences, but this is just not helpful, or to “heal wounds lightly,” which usually only increases pain. When this begins to be uncomfortable, there is the choice to self-protect and defend, or to go deeper yet and ask, “tell me more.”
The other lesson of this book is that change is a process, and one not undertaken lightly or accomplished quickly. At one point, Pei writes about an Asian-American leader in a predominantly white InterVarsity, who patiently worked over 30 years and pioneered a program to develop Asian-American and other minority leaders. One of those leaders, Tom Lin, is now InterVarsity’s president in a much more diverse organization. A clear vision of why an organization wants to foster diversity, and resolved leadership who persist, are critical in change processes.
Most of all, Pei’s personal vulnerability in sharing his own experiences of pain, power, and the past strengthens the work immeasurably. He offers hope without dodging the hard realities he has had to negotiate, even in a well-meaning Christian organization. The stories of organizations who have worked through such processes offer hope for others contemplating leaning into these challenges.