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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Many Types of Birds In A Big World

January 27, 2017 

When traveling, one’s senses are open to a wide swath of experiences. New experiences bring joy and wonder to my world, yet they can also so be exacerbating, bewildering and frustrating at times. I have traveled to many places in the world together with my friend Koralo – a U.S. citizen, born and raised in China.

When Koralo and I come across a new experience, or if someone acts peculiar, strange or sometimes downright bizarre, we try to make sense of it, chalking it up to “it’s a big world and in a big world there are many types of birds.” This usually elicits smiles and laughter as we navigate the world and the different experiences it brings to our lives.

People come in many sizes, shapes, colors, religions, cultures, values, beliefs, customs and ways of viewing the world. There are great differences and many similarities in our world. Differences bring joy to some while frightening others.

Cultural diversity is defined as differences in race, ethnicity, language, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and gender as represented within a community or workplace. Depending on your upbringing and what you are taught, you can see these differences as strengths or weaknesses – something to embrace or shun.

Teach Your Children Well

We often become what we are taught or what we experience. I was fortunate to grow up in a household where I was taught by word and deed, at an early age, by both religious grounding and family values, to treat ALL people with dignity and respect. I grew up at a time when the outward signs of discrimination were being re-thought, but humans’ attitudes and injustice still remain today.

I was fortunate to grow up with black and white friends. Friends with long names that ended in “ski” – long names I was glad were not mine and I did not have to spell. Sometimes I felt sorry for my Jewish friend for having to eat bagels that I considered non-sugary donuts. When you are young, unless taught otherwise by adults, differences seldom have negative connotations.

We are blessed in this country because it IS so diverse. With diversity comes many perspectives and ideas that add strength in our ability to innovate, strategize, communicate and deliver new ideas while striving to build “a more perfect union”.

Yet, diversity also presents challenges to our nation and within workplaces where differences can collide. Yet, where differences present themselves along with a culture of willingness to be open and learn, opportunity exists to provide people with a means to reach out and discover the amazing commonalities that exist beneath the surface differences among people.

The World Viewed Through a Kaleidoscope

While I choose to live in Michigan, I view myself as a citizen of the world and am constantly seeking ways to incorporate diversity in all its kaleidoscope of wonder and color in everything that I do. Of the various awards and recognitions I have received in my long career, being recognized as someone who acts on the belief of diversity as strength gives me great pride.

As my first professional boss once told me, “If both of us agree on everything, one of us is unnecessary.”

The world would be a dull place and innovation, creativity and problem solving would die under its own weight if we all thought the same. Tension and difference can breed new ideas. Group think seldom provides the genesis of creativity, innovation, and new ideas.

The value of diversity is more than being ‘politically correct’. Diverse backgrounds can strengthen groups, communities, cities, states and nations when embraced and managed well.

Research findings underscore the value of diversity. “You wouldn’t necessarily think that the conflict caused by diversity could lead to better performance, or that a team that feels more comfortable with itself in fact underperforms, but that’s what studies show.”

I am glad my family’s religious and belief systems taught me early on to embrace the differences among us, to learn from them, and treat all people with dignity and respect.

It is a big world out there. In a big world, there are many types of birds. Enjoy and embrace the diversity of them all!

Tom Watkins eclectic career in leadership spans government, healthcare, politics, business, K-12 and higher education. He is the President and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. His other passion is China-watching. See his China work at CHINA US Focus
He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88

January 26, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Jan 27, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    Well said, Tom.

  • 2 Steve Tobocman // Jan 28, 2017 at 7:21 am

    Thanks Tom. The research really supports diversity, not just on the firm/group level, but regional level. Not only have studies from UM’s William Kerr shown that international diversity (immigrants) means higher patent production for a region, but that U.S.-born scientists’ patent production rates are boosted when more immigrants come to a region.

    Investing in higher education, better Pre-K to 14, and talent initiatives is the most important economic development policy (see Massachusetts), but all of that takes lots of time, money, and good, sustained cooperation among our leaders–which we really seem to lack.

    Simply being more encouraging to immigrants is a low-cost and highly effective strategy in the short-term.


  • 3 Bill Cecil // Jan 28, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    Here is a VERY TIMELY article by one of the kindest and wisest people I know! I had the great honor to work for Tom Watkins (Former Michigan Superintendent of Schools) while serving as Michigan Teacher of the Year in 2003-2004. Mr. Watkins is truly a leader that “walks his talk!” I am proud to call him a friend!! Thanks, Tom!!

  • 4 Jim Dehem // Jan 28, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks Tom for your thoughts on the value of diversity.
    You are absolutely correct in saying that the value of diversity in our society goes beyond “political correctness”. Among your many experiences, family values and travels that have brought you your insights to diversity is your current leadership as CEO of the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Authority. The DWMHA is responsible for advocating and serving people who not only represent all backgrounds of race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity and nationality but also bring diversity in having physical, intellectual/cognitive disabilities, substance use conditions, mental heath and emotional differences from others.

    These are people who we are recently seeing in the news being devalued and subjected to despicable attitudes, language, segregation, outright physical beatings, emotional abuse and bullying. A return to our shameful past of stigmatization and exclusion cannot happen. We need to see our society as collectively better when we treat everyone with differences and differing abilities as human and deserving of respect as anyone else.

  • 5 Joe Nathan // Jan 28, 2017 at 9:50 pm

    Very well done, Tom.

  • 6 Jon Madian // Jan 28, 2017 at 11:12 pm

    Bless you brother for this so important and timely article. Strange that we forget that most of us would no be here but for the U.S. priding itself on being a melting pot. Clearly something Trump under Bannon’s leadership fails to grasp, like so much else, about our history.

  • 7 Greg Olszta // Jan 29, 2017 at 8:25 am

    Thank you, Tom, for your optimism and sincerity at this particular low point in our history. We must certainly maintain our values and beliefs as we fight and oppose the current bigotry and injustice in Washington.

  • 8 William Riley // Jan 29, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    Tom, this is a great article. It more than captures how I feel and how I was raised. I enforced the same values with my children. Treating people fairly and right are Godly in nature. Even though we are not perfect, we must strive to do right by all people. It is so sad that there are a number of people in our country and government that do not see the value in diversity.

    We must not allow differences to divide us as humans beings. World history and present history continue to show us how deadly it can be when we hate and divide ourselves because of religion, race, politics and other issues. Love our fellow earthly brothers and sisters. Never let the ugliness go unchallenged. Diversity is our planets greatest gift.

  • 9 Anagnorisis // Jan 29, 2017 at 5:29 pm

    To reiterate, these columnists are of the highest quality and integrity and we are privileged to have access to their forum; let us not abuse this. These people have paid their dues, the hard way, the real way, just by doing it. The current administration might provide some adventurous intervention by those so involved in constitutional mores and law.

  • 10 Leroy Stephens // Jan 30, 2017 at 8:54 pm

    One of the things I appreciated in our friendship Tom is that you always looked at a person to find the good in them no matter where they are from and what they look like. If we all followed the golden rule this would be a better place. Love is the key.

  • 11 Michael Warren // Feb 6, 2017 at 11:07 pm

    Tom, another insightful article. Equality, of course, is a key founding First Principle we embrace as Americans (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”). Diversity of opinion – the “marketplace of ideas” allows the best ideas to bubble up and be embraced; it also empowers all to contribute. For our Union to work, we need all to contribute – there is too much competition to exclude talent from contributing. We also all need to understand and embrace those founding First Principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence and embedded in our Constitution. We need to remember what unites us Americans, or we risk unraveling.



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