By James Spellman, Jr., Space and Missile Systems Center Public Affairs
/ Published September 23, 2015
LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, El Segundo, Calif. -- The courtyard of the Space and Missile Systems Center's Schriever Space Complex took on the look of a mini United Nations conference as people from various ethnicities and races, representing cultural, educational and geographical heritages, religious faiths and socioeconomic or political backgrounds came together in unity to celebrate their diversity.
Under the theme of "Connecting Cultures," Los Angeles Air Force Base's annual Diversity Day brought together active-duty service members, families and civilians to experience slices of culture through open discussion, dance, music and food to better appreciate the success of today's Air Force and other branches of military service through the diversity of its members.
"Here at SMC we have multiple cultures, if you think about it. We have active duty, we have reserves, we have civilians and we have federally-funded research and development corporation folks, primarily Aerospace and the minor corporations. We have SETA (Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance) and the prime contractors, as well as members of our sister services and liaisons from our coalition partners," said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, SMC commander and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, prior to the start of a panel discussion on Leadership in a Diverse Air Force, held in the Gordon Conference Center.
"But even with that diverse set of cultures here at the center, we do share one mission. And we must be able to understand our differences in order for us to work together. Our cultures essentially dictate how, when and even why we do the work that we do," said Greaves. "It's being able to understand those differences and being able to work with those differences and similarities that affect our ability to execute toward mission success, and that's the bottom line. That's why a day like this is extremely important."
Having grown up in New York City, Greaves related his personal experience, appreciation and understanding for the positive impact a diverse workforce yields today.
"We're very privileged to have on hand here at SMC a very, very diverse workforce here in Southern California -- one of the most diverse, broader communities within the United States. The Air Force has come online in a big way to promote the positive benefits of diversity within the Air Force and, most importantly, adopting a culture of inclusiveness. Period. Dot. No excuses," said Greaves. "That's our aim within the United States Air Force, from the Secretary on down: to create, establish, sustain and promote the environment of inclusiveness. Any action that precludes that or goes against that will not be tolerated."
According to Greaves, "Interacting with others from various backgrounds, cultures, experiences help us all to grow, and I hope that's what you see at the center. It also allows us to introduce innovative approaches to situations that we're presented with. It's always good to get away from group think, and being here in this community at SMC has been a tremendous asset."
Greaves' comments were echoed during the panel discussion moderated by Cordell DeLaPena, director of SMC's Program Management and Integration Directorate and an SMC champion for diversity.
"We take a moment to embrace and acknowledge the contributions of the different cultures that make up this country and our military," said DeLaPena. "We also recognize the future strengths in the evolution of a more diverse Air Force. The evolution means leaders must understand the dimensions of diversity and how diversity has shaped and will shape our understanding of leadership."
Leadership panelist Col. Al Burse, senior materiel leader of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Generation and Operations Division of the Launch Systems Directorate explained diversity succinctly as, "Why I have one of the best jobs in the Air Force right now, to be launching national space systems from coast to coast."
"As you can see, I don't sound, I don't look like, and I probably don't think like many of you here in this audience today," said the Arkansas native. "But, that doesn't really matter to me. You know what matters? It's what I bring to the fight for our nation."
Lani Smith, executive director of the Space Superiority Systems Directorate related her situation as a young Air Force Lieutenant in the past, when physical differences was how organizations originally addressed diversity.
"Wherever I went, I improved the diversity profile, because in a couple of areas, I'm half Japanese and I'm female. So right there, I was already bumping up the numbers for the organization that I was in," Smith said, with a grin.
"Now, I have to say even recently, thirty years later, I'm over 50, I'm Asian, I'm female and it just so happens I'm married to a woman. So right there, I'm hitting four big ones. I'll admit though that being a poster child means I can't be complacent about diversity," Smith pointed out.
"I can't just strut around and say, 'I'm doing it for SMC; I don't have to worry about my own actions'. You look across this panel and you see all of us and we appear to be very different, but we actually have a lot of similarities because of our military background, because of what we do. So I would argue we're not necessarily a panel of diversity, but we have had different experiences with diversity."
Senior Master Sgt. Nancy Gonzales, security forces manager for the 61st Security Forces Squadron who has deployed six times in support of operations Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, pointed out that as a career cop in one of the largest Air Force Specialty Codes, it was very much a male-dominated world when she joined 20 years ago, a decade after women were allowed into that particular AFSC.
"I never felt any different. I never felt like I was treated differently. And then I realized we're not a traditional unit. We don't come to work and sit at a desk and not talk to the person that we don't like next to us," said Gonzales humorously. "We are in vehicles. Two people at a time, doing a job and you have to be a team. And not only do you have to be a team doing a job, you have guns...and they are loaded," Gonzales said as laughter came over the audience. "So you have to get along. You have to be tolerant with people that are different than you."
John Baldonado, chief of Acquisition Contracts for SMC, related a similar story from a different perspective. A civilian engineer with no prior military experience, of Asian-Pacific descent, and a first-generation immigrant brought up in a traditional household with a family ethic and cultural traits of being told to work hard to achieve his goals, Baldonado explained how the environment at SMC was very different back in the 1990s.
"There weren't any civilian program managers. Mostly it was military. Also, not too many Asian-American program managers were in the area. They were either in technical fields, or different functional expertise areas, such as contracts and financial management," said Baldonado.
"Fortunately, I was around a lot of leaders on the base here who saw something in me. I was unique. I think that was an advantage; you stand out really well if you're unique," said Baldonado, whose comment drew a few chuckles from the audience. "Also being different during that time, it gives you some extra motivation sometimes when you're a little different, when you're trying to fit in with others and trying to distinguish yourself."
Baldonado attributes his success to some great leadership and mentors within SMC who interacted on his behalf and tried to shape his career progress that taught him a great lesson.
"Being different in the Air Force can be very challenging, but the awareness of diversity, the awareness of cultures and the awareness of how those cultures interact and work to get along, eventually fulfills and strengthens the career fields and leads to success," said Baldonado.
Activities and events included stage and musical performances by Kimloan Le from the 61st Force Support Squadron on a dan tranh, or Vietnamese zither and smooth jazz trio, the Lance Reed Band. Food and side dishes from around the world and cultural booths were staffed by volunteers representing the African-American Cultural Alliance, American Latino Awareness Society, Asian-Pacific American Council, Caribbean Islander Group, and a group of organizations operating under the umbrella of the Aerospace Diversity Action Committee and Affinity Groups.
Additional community and service organizations from the Abilities Group, Army and Air Force Exchange Services, Airman and Family Readiness Center, Chaplain/Lay Organizations, Equal Opportunity, Mental Health, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and SMC's Opportunities for Women in Leadership and Service rounded out the roster of participants.
"It was a pleasure working with the Diversity Day Committee. Each member of the team played a vital role in ensuring this event was a success and I couldn't have done it without them," said Master Sgt. Robert Lewis, 61st Medical Squadron patient advocate and NCO in charge of the Mental Health clinic's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program. "We are honored to have the opportunity to showcase and celebrate the different backgrounds represented here at Los Angeles AFB."
Greaves admits, "We're not perfect, but we are ahead of the curve," in creating an environment that promotes mutual respect and trust while promoting the development and mentorship of Airmen with different backgrounds and perspectives so they continue to grow and thrive in the Air Force.
"I have seen the creativity and innovation that we need and have demonstrated to become agile and responsive," Greaves said. "I've seen the respect and professionalism that we've shown and continue to show each other by being more inclusive, connecting our cultures, learning from each other and treating each other with the dignity and respect we all deserve and what the Air Force expects."