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Michele Soria delves deeply into diversity


Though fulfilling, diversity trainer Michele Soria’s job as executive director of the Iowa Council for International Understanding has definite challenges. Soria, a descendant of Ashkenazim Jews who escaped Nazi-era Europe, says she has encountered “members of the Aryan Nations, neo-Nazis, skinheads” in her training sessions. But she insists it’s more than her multicultural heritage that makes her well-suited to diversity training.

“It’s a product of my whole life and my upbringing, not only with my father being from South America and my mother being from Belgium and being Jewish,” Soria said. “We always traveled all over. I’ve been very comfortable in other cultures. It’s always been a part of my life.

“But I also work well with resistance and hostility. Doing diversity training is not like doing time-management training. You have to be passionate about it yourself, but you also have to understand the resistance. You’ve got to be a person who’s comfortable with speaking out and being co-responsible – accountable.”

Another of Soria’s qualification is her creativity. She is a Drake University graduate, earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and education and a master’s degree in administration. She spent a portion of her college years studying at the University of Tel Aviv and, after graduating from Drake, found work teaching in Barcelona, Spain.

Upon returning to the United States, Soria was a teacher for the Des Moines Independent School District and eventually became a consultant to the district’s talented-and-gifted program. As part of that job, she took an assessment that showed her creative skill to be so well developed that it caught the attention of a creativity think tank, Boston-based Synectics Inc. While there, she learned Synectics, a method she says is invaluable to her training method.

Synectics, whose name dervies from from the Greek word “synecticos,” refers to connecting disparate parts. Promoting diversity, Soria says, is often a matter of showing the connection and possible harmony between different cultures, practices and ideas. When people are stuck in a certain mindset, they cannot accept a line of thinking without help. Synectics uses analogies, metaphors, art and music to make connections or alter perceptions.

“You can use the arts in workshops, live musicians – it’s a powerful tool,” Soria said. “This topic can be emotional and the arts are emotional, so it’s a good fit.”

After resigning from her position as a talented-and-gifted consultant, Soria joined the Iowa Department of Education’s Respecting Ethnic and Cultural Heritage, or REACH, program. She is one of only 12 senior trainers in the country for REACH, and one of only nine people certified in leading Synectic excursions. She created her own business, New Realities, and traveled nationally and internationally to conduct training sessions. Eventually, the extensive travel was too much.

Two years ago, Soria became the executive director of the Iowa Council for International Understanding, a 65-year-old non-profit organization that promotes mutual respect and understanding between Iowans and people from all cultures and countries. It was created in 1938 to help refugees escaping Europe. The position allowed her to continue her training without as much travel and to take on additional responsibilities.

The ICIU has 130 translators fluent in 40 languages and dialects to help businesses, schools, the courts, the police, hospitals and others to communicate. The organization povides diversity training to the groups listed above, and hosts leaders and emerging leaders from around the world. The council creates programs to teach them about American culture and how their counterparts do work in the United States.

Soria will lead a diversity training workshop titled “Get Real! Straight Up” from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. In just three hours, she will lead the group through many concepts, including valuing diversity to improve staff morale, team effectiveness and excellence in the workplace; the characteristics of multicultural leaders; “prejudice, power and the -isms”; aspects of identity and self-esteem; and sSynectics.

“Something that I think is unique about this training is we will deal with real issues and things that aren’t generally discussed, that some people aren’t comfortable with,” Soria said. “Some businesses will say, OK, talk about race and ethnicity, but not [sexual orientation]. Well, we’re going to deal with that in a very direct way.”

It’s a lot of ground to cover in one session. It’s a crash course, but it’s a process Soria says can have profound effects on workshop participants.

“They feel like their life was changed,” she said.  

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