Environment of acceptance is her goal

September 20, 2005 By John Lucas

“Have you seen the penguin movie?” asks Linda Denise (LD) Oakley, stopping cold in the middle of a discussion of workplace inclusivity on the UW–Madison campus.

The penguin movie, the summer hit “March of the Penguins,” tells a story about how large groups of penguins work together to survive as a successful example of group behavior — a message that Oakley hopes to convey to the campus.

“There’s no way any single penguin or family of penguins could make it on their own,” says Oakley, a professor of nursing. “They all ‘get it’ so they work together. Their individual success depends on the group’s success.”

Oakley has made a career out of studying behavior and methods of bringing about change.

Photo of Linda Oakley sitting with other members of the Diversity Oversight Committee.

Linda Denise “LD” Oakley, center, professor of nursing and Diversity Oversight Committee (DOC) chair, facilitates a group brainstorming session during a DOC meeting in Bascom Hall. Pictured, left to right, are fellow DOC members Ada Deer, director of the American Indian Studies Program; Jeff Wright, an undergraduate student; and Nancy Shaker Marty, a Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene human resources staff member. Photo: Jeff Miller

In her role as a nurse researcher and mental health-care provider, she addresses complex health burdens of the disadvantaged by working to develop new models of psychiatric care for women struggling with the effects of poverty, discrimination and abuse.

Her work has centered on finding effective methods of helping patients to change unhealthy behaviors in the limited amount of time they may have with a mental-health provider. For those efforts, she received a 2004 UW System Outstanding Woman of Color Award.

As the new co-chair of the campus Diversity Oversight Committee (DOC), she’s taken on a leadership role in a larger, yet not dissimilar, behavioral and cultural change project.

Along with Bernice Durand, associate vice chancellor for diversity and climate, she’ll guide the shared governance committee’s efforts on Plan 2008, the blueprint to increase the diversity of UW–Madison’s students, faculty, staff and campus life.

More than simply increasing diversity numbers — a goal toward which UW–Madison has made some progress — Oakley has her sights set on the retention of people of color and the concept that students, faculty and staff all need to be personally accountable for improving what she describes as a sometimes “unpredictable and impenetrable” campus climate.

“We’re doing lots [related to recruiting], but don’t have much to show for it,” she says, noting that people of color are far less likely to feel they are a part of the university and ultimately, are less likely to want to stay in Madison.

Oakley suggests that retention of students, faculty and staff can be improved through changes in the workplaces around campus that have cultures of “insiders and outsiders.”

Too often, she says, people of color are outsiders, coming into long-established departments, committees or labs dominated by the views of a few majority members. In too many cases, people of color aren’t welcomed or accepted, becoming instead “sidelined” outsiders.

In some cases, the workplace environment can become poisonous. Although the situations may never rise to the level of discrimination, insiders use sophisticated tactics of exclusion, such as withholding information or labeling people as negative or difficult, to further isolate them from the larger group.

Without a healthy work environment, employees can become less effective, isolated or simply not able to live up to their actual potential for success, Oakley says. When this happens on a large scale, the overall potential and productivity of the institution is seriously hampered.

“I’ve lived it and observed it up close,” she says. “It is the experience of students, faculty and staff of color on this campus. As a professor of nursing, I recognize that the severe stress of an unhealthy work environment can generate diagnosable illnesses.”

To counter isolation, Oakley suggests that deans, directors and department chairs become the driving force for recognizing unhealthy workplace cultures and take responsibility for change by establishing expectations for inclusive work environments.

“We can tell people that they’re free to do whatever they want on their personal time, but they cannot be allowed to diminish the work environment for everyone else,” she says.

First, more faculty and staff must understand how unhealthy work environments hold back an otherwise progressive campus and then join the movement for positive change, says Oakley. She says this mindset shift is needed to build the critical mass necessary to make real improvements in workplace climate.

She’ll discuss accountability as a means of building the campus climate during a featured speech at the Thursday, Sept. 29, Campus Plan 2008 Forum.

Despite the difficulty of affecting a culture change in a large institution, Durand believes Oakley is uniquely suited to help UW–Madison move in a positive direction on campus climate and accountability.

She remembers meeting Oakley as part of the search committee that would select John Wiley as chancellor. When discussing the attributes of each candidate, Oakley stood out among the members by capturing the group’s sentiment and asking tough questions that were dead-on.

After two meetings leading the DOC, she’s also brought that same ability to focus a large group of people, Durand says.

“She talks easily, with confidence, and she’s unafraid to say hard things,” Durand says. “She commands attention, but also reads the room, and hears what people are saying.”

Tags: diversity