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Air, Space, Cyber Conference panel discuss diversity within AF

The Air Force Association 2020 Air, Space and Cyber Conference graphic. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez)

The Air Force Association 2020 Virtual Air, Space and Cyber Conference is an annual meeting of aerospace professionals, Defense Department, industry, academia and international partners. The 72nd conference and professional development event is being held remotely for the first time from Arlington, Va., Sept. 14-16, 2020. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez)

ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS) --

The Air Force Association hosted a Diversity and Racial Change Panel Sept. 16 at the 2020 Virtual Air Space and Cyber conference. 

Moderated by Lisa Disbrow, 25th undersecretary of the Air Force, the panel included Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass; Gen. (ret.) Larry O. Spencer, 37th vice chief of staff of the Air Force; Honorable Shon Manasco, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve affairs; and Gen. (ret.) Lori Robinson, former commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command.

Recent events in the United States have sparked discussions of diversity and inclusion across the nation. The U.S. Air Force is no different. 

As the panel kicked off, Bass noted that diversity is not solely defined by race.

“When I think about diversity, I think for me it is the things that make us different … when it comes to the United States Air Force, it is our diversity in race or ethnicity, gender, our sexual orientation, our religious beliefs, our economic backgrounds, our diversity of thought, and so, it's all of that combined,” Bass said. “It's critical to have that diversity in the Air Force that we have today because it is truly through that diversity that we can become the greatest organization and continue in that legacy.”

According to Spencer, a major step that must be taken to advance diversity is acknowledging unconscious bias and eliminating “colorblindness.” 

“One of the frustrations people of color have is that there are many folks who just don't believe there's any issue,” he said. “I don't blame people for that, I understand it's hard to project yourself in someone else's shoes or someone else's life or see through their eyes, through their life lens.”

Spencer also commented on the possible dilemma of leaders feeling pressured to fulfill “quotas.” He recommended not focusing on filling a number, but hiring individuals who will propel the organization forward.

“The objective in an organization is not to build a Noah's Ark,” he said. “Diverse organizations, by every study I've read, perform better. It's not about getting one of these or two of those, it's about making your organization stronger and better.”

Simply employing a diverse force is not where progress ends. Inclusion must also occur. Bass likens diversity and inclusion to that of a dance.

“Diversity is inviting somebody to the dance. Inclusion is actually asking them to dance,” she said.

The panel members agreed that once diverse members get a seat at the table, their voices must be included in discussion and decision-making to provide alternate perspectives and solutions. 

Manasco said he believes to truly take advantage of the unique experiences and perspectives of each Airman, trust must be established.

“I believe strongly that you have to meet your Airmen—you have to express a genuine interest in understanding not only who they are, but why they are who they are,” Manasco said. “So, the idea is to create trust in an environment where people don't have to check who they are at the door every time they come into work, they can actually bring their whole self into work. If we can do that, and if we can eradicate any obstacles that might exist to people's success, then I think we’ll be in a situation where success will breed success.”

While diversity and inclusion are hot topics right now, Manasco said he thinks that the conversation should not be one that is fleeting, but should be something the Air Force should continue to tackle and engrain in its culture.

“I think this is the beginning and not the end of this conversation,” he said. “If we can anchor on our shared interests and the things that actually unite us and really dispel those things that draw dissention amongst us, then I think we'll be in a good place. We've got work to do, but I know that we can set the standard, not only for the Department of Defense, but also for the nation.”