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Similarity training program aims to cultivate unity within organizations

Posted at 4:03 PM, May 27, 2021

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — From elementary schools to Fortune 500 companies, leaders are re-examining inequities within their organizations, meeting the moment after George Floyd’s murder and global protests that followed.

But diversity training isn't new, and studies show it's often ineffective.

Miles McPherson, the pastor of the Rock Church in San Diego, is working to bring a different kind of training to communities.

“Every pillar in our society is looking and using and leveraging diversity training of some kind," said McPherson. "This applies to all of those because it’s really about our humanity.”

McPherson released his book, The Third Option: Hope for a Racially Divided Nation, in 2018. Three years later, he says the message is more important now than ever before.

“George Floyd’s murder stirred up everything," said McPherson. “It kind of triggered something in me, saying, 'OK, now we’ve got to take it to another level, the involvement of trying to unite people.'”

He created The Third Option Similarity Training with principles from the book, like acknowledging blind spots and how we self-segregate and place labels.

“When I was growing up, I grew up in a Black neighborhood, went to school in a white neighborhood. Because I wasn’t white, I got harassed in that neighborhood. Because I wasn’t Black enough, because I'm mixed, I got harassed in my neighborhood," said McPherson.

He saw at a young age he lived in two Americas.

But growing up in a family of mixed races and playing on diverse football teams from Pop Warner to the NFL, McPherson learned people are more similar than different. His father was a New York police officer for more than 30 years, and his son now works in law enforcement.

“Instead of being on this side or that side, let’s stand in the middle and say, 'What is about you and me that is the same? We are really all variations of the same thing. You’re human, I’m human. You have blood, I have blood,'" said McPherson.

In a divided world where it feels like people must choose a side, he says there's a third option: honoring what we have in common.

Michael Brunker came out of retirement to become CEO for The Third Option City.

"I considered it a calling," said Brunker. "And with this whole concept, it was, how do we really unite the country one city at a time by developing loving relationships that honor our similarities and celebrate our uniqueness?”

Brunker says it’s not your typical diversity training.

"We're not your check off the box DEI training," said Brunker. "We’ve all been through those. You sit down for an hour, and then you go through scenarios, you watch some videos, you check it off, you turn it in. You get your certificate, and then you're done."

Throughout the six sessions, participants role-play and have discussions. They're also asked to find an accountability partner to do homework, learn from and have discussions with.

McPherson tells participants to give one another grace to make mistakes and to allow people to say the wrong thing.

"People are not defensive when they're taking this, not shamed," said Haley Bennett, director of operation services for The Third Option City. “We’re not straying away from people being uncomfortable because the conversation can be uncomfortable."

To build a Third Option City, they want to get the training to eight community pillars: schools, businesses, health care, government agencies like law enforcement, media, faith organizations, sports, and entertainment.

“We had a teacher who did it with her juvenile court school classroom. And even the gang members in the class were realizing that they’re more similar to other gangs that they’re usually rivals against," said Bennett.

With monthly teacher training available virtually, people can get certified and bring the course to their organization.

"Once you learn it, our challenge to all is to live it, and live it in the community that you serve," said Brunker. "It’s not a check off the box training. It’s a movement.”