Monday, April 16, 2012

Bill’s Article Featured in Hispanic Retail 360 Magazine

Misguided Perceptions…Dare to Make a Difference!

by Bill Capodagli

Some years ago, a former client of mine heightened my understanding of misguided perceptions with this story that happened in his organization. One day, an elderly gentleman walked up to the retail counter and began asking questions. The counter manager thought this man was a lonely old fellow who was just interested in conversation. He said, “My initial reaction was to return to my other duties of stocking shelves and processing orders. However, having just attended a three-day retreat in which we talked about treating the customer as if he were a guest in our own homes, I continued to talk with this guy for about two hours.”

The following day, this seemingly unlikely customer returned to place a $500 order. What’s more, he related that he had told his sons, who were taking over his construction business, about the fine hospitality he had received the day before. He assured the counter manager that his company looked forward to a long-term business relationship with my client!

First impressions and expectations of our customers, our employees and our students can cause us to act in haste, resulting in outcomes with undesirable and often damaging consequences. There are a few great historical examples of such behavior patterns. As a young student, Thomas Edison's mind often wandered, and his teacher was overheard calling him "addled” (mentally confused). This ended his three months of formal education after which time he was homeschooled by his mother. General George Patton did not start school until the age of 11 and had extreme difficulty learning to read and write. Back then, the learning disability of dyslexia was unknown. Children with dyslexia were typically mocked and discouraged. Fortunately for George (and the Allied Armies of WWII), his parents educated him at home until he could enter school. As a schoolboy in art class, Walt Disney was assigned to draw flowers. His teacher was less than impressed by the boy’s deviation from the norm, and failed to recognize the creative genius whose dream world would lead him to become one of the most famous artists of all time!

I shudder to think what the world would be like if we truly had stifled the talents of these three extraordinary men who contributed so much to our culture and way of life. Now think about how many talents we are stifling in our companies and schools by misguided perceptions…“you can’t be smart because you don’t talk like me”…“she can’t be creative, look at the way she dresses”…“I can’t be friends with him because he goes to a different church.”

In the early 1900’s when my grandfather came to this country, the US was known as the great melting pot. Cultures and customs merged. Today, many of the descendants of these early immigrants are the very ones with the misguided perceptions…“we don’t like you because you’re not like us.” This negative mindset can damage our businesses, yet more importantly, it can damage our youth – the future leaders of our communities.

Misguided perceptions are all too apparent in Holland, Michigan. In early 2010, ABC News reported that Holland (and its neighboring town of Grand Haven), Michigan was ranked #2 on the list of “Top Ten Healthiest, Happiest Places in America” by Well-Being Index. In Holland, that “happiness” factor is certainly in question…at least for some.

Over 22% of the population of Holland is Hispanic, and in December of 2010, reported that Holland hosts the largest and fastest-growing young Hispanic population in Michigan. Yet, take a stroll down 8th Street (Holland’s main retail district) and you will rarely see any minorities. The perception that Hispanics are not as the Dutch say,“WELKOM!,” is all too evident here.

As many local leaders have shared with me, the perception that Hispanics are second class citizens is manifested in Holland’s educational institutions, from the K-12 system to Hope College, a private liberal arts school in the downtown area. Unspoken, yet tragic perceptions abound…“you’re Hispanic, so you wouldn’t do well in advanced placement classes”…“you’re Hispanic, so you should think of getting vocational training, because college is not realistic.” In many communities, these perceptions are addressed by blanket school board proclamations such as, “any form of discrimination will not be tolerated.” Unfortunately, all too often, this turns out to be little more than lip service resulting in no appreciable results.

I am pleased to report that there are powerful forces at work in Holland, Michigan who are doing much more than merely talking about the problem. For example, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and AT&T have chosen to work with Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP) in Holland, Michigan as one of only 8 sites around the United States to conduct ¡Adelante! America. The program is “designed for those students who could use the help of a structured program and key relationships in order to develop the motivation and vision to finish high school and pursue further education/training beyond graduation.” Roberto (Bert) Jara, Jr. is the Executive Director of LAUP in Holland and the facilitator of ¡Adelante! America.

For nearly two years, Bert has been facilitating a group of 30 students who meet weekly with community leaders to learn career development skills. Bert told me, ““We are trying to teach our students to question the way things are and not to be afraid to bring their own perspectives to situations. We lose something when our young Hispanic youth learn to think only one way, in the straight-line North American/Western European way. We miss out on their creativity. Latino culture brings a lot of passion, imagination and emphasis on what is good for people. We want to release our young people to question the system, not in order to be trouble-makers, but in order to create a community that is better for everyone. If we don't allow our young people to speak up, if we don’t
cut them loose, the community will miss out.”

One of Bert’s students, Jessica Salas related, “We’ve gotten closer, and it’s easier to bring up touchy subjects. In a (school) classroom, it’s more difficult to do this…what are people going to think of me if I say this?” Another student in Bert’s group, Angelica Villegas commented, “Just being around everyone who is sincere and honest makes it easier to learn….if you have a more personal connection, you are more willing to take and apply what they teach you.”

Holland creative consultant and my Disney Way webinar co-host, Ken Freestone, has been working with the LAUP students in a variety of ways. He said, “One of my mantras is that everyone is creative. Everyone’s got great ideas…but sometimes in schools creativity gets shoved aside.” Praise for the LAUP program is perhaps best summarized by one student’s comment, “I think that all the skills we’ve learned makes us think, opens{our}minds and gives us the opportunity to be creative.”

Ken remarked, “Bill, one of the things you’ve taught me from The Disney Way is the importance of STORY. No matter what you do, whether it’s the projects the kids are working on or whatever they are doing, they have to have a story.” All the skills the students have been learning culminate in their end-of-year projects that they have chosen without consultation or censorship from Bert. This year, their three projects are: child obesity, teen pregnancy, and community discrimination.

It is amazing how these misguided perceptions have been turned around for these 30 LAUP students. One student expressed to me, “I learned to be outgoing and think more critically. Before, I was very quiet and didn’t want to give my opinion out there. Now I do. I feel my word actually does count and it does matter.” These students are on track to mature into responsible and respectful citizens capable of independent problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership.

Tony Castillo, owner of three McDonald’s restaurants in Holland, has been a long-time supporter of LAUP. Tony was one of four McDonald’s owners to be invited to the White House in 2008 in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. Recently, I met with Tony at one of his McDonald’s restaurants (my personal favorite!) and asked him about how misguided perceptions impact the Hispanic community within the local business arena.

“For me, it’s societal, but more than that, it’s economics. It’s going to be a ‘pay me now or pay me later’ situation. What I mean by that, if those kids aren’t educated, you’re going to be looking at a very elitist community and it’s already starting…you’ll have the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’”

And Tony is absolutely right. The societal implication of failing to prepare our youth to achieve their dreams, aspirations and true potential is criminal. That alone should be enough to drive change, but the economic implications should force us to do so.

Consider these economic costs:

  • A high school dropout contributes about $60,000 less in taxes over a lifetime.
  • If the male graduation rate were increased by only 5 percent, the nation would see an annual estimated savings of $4.9 billion in crime-related costs.
  • As a whole, U.S. businesses spend about $25 billion annually on remedial education. 

We are often too quick to blame the schools and the schools are often too quick to blame a lack of parental support and too much government regulation. Both are correct. Schools’ methods of delivering education need to change. All students, not just Hispanic students, need the types of opportunities LAUP and ¡Adelante! America offer.

As a consultant to both business and schools alike, I believe there is no longer any question of whether or not to change our education paradigm, but rather whether the conditions and support are adequate to enable the process to be successful. I have come to the realization that schools cannot do it alone…it takes the entire community working in collaboration to accomplish real change.

This realization was solidified in my mind during a consulting engagement in the southwestern Michigan town of Dowagiac. Several of their local entities – school district, hospital, community college, and city government – banded together to form a Disney Way consortium based upon Walt Disney’s Dream, Believe, Dare, Do success credo. Their goal was not only to transform the educational system but to revamp the community culture to become “customer-centric producers” of their own “shows.”

Dowagiac Union Schools’ dream for education is a great dream for any community:

Imagine a place where:

Ø Students have a passion for learning

Ø the focus is student-centered

Ø students achieve personal goals

Ø each person is valued

Ø our whole community is an educator

Ø children work together and learn from each other

Ø education is one in a hundred (their goal is to be in the top 1% of all schools)

So here’s a challenge for you as a business leader…get involved in the school board, chamber of commerce, civic group – anywhere that will allow you to champion a collaborative and inclusive community culture that is real and permanent. It’s time we ensure that our “happiest and healthiest” places in America are truly happy places for everyone. There’s a lesson to be learned from Bert Jara and one of his amazing LAUP students, Angelica Villegas, who said, “Bert got us out of our comfort zone…which was a good thing.” Break out of your comfort zone and dare to make a difference in the culture of your community!

In April, 2011, Stagnito Media launched Hispanic Retail 360 Magazine, a quarterly publication serving the retailer community across all trade channels. Hispanic Retail 360 Magazine is a stand-alone magazine polybagged with Progressive Grocer, Convenience Store News and The Gourmet Retailer magazines, reaching more than 20,000 C-suite executives and owners in convenience, grocery and specialty food and kitchenware retailing.

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