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NIGMS Book Club Promotes Diversity Discourse

By Jilliene Mitchell

On the Front Page...

When Martha Pine, associate director for administration and operations at NIGMS, decided to start an institute book club, she had in mind a place where staff members could talk about the dynamics of diversity. The idea came to her after reading an article in the Washington Post about a diversity book club in Prince George's County. Pine said she shared her idea with Dr. Anthony René, NIGMS assistant director for referral and liaison, and soon after, a plan to launch a book club was in the works.

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"Tony and I talked about the possibility of having NIGMS start a book club as a way to encourage NIGMS staff to talk about important but delicate topics that we might otherwise not discuss with one another — issues of race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability and the like," Pine said.

"Discussing these topics around the stories and messages presented in works of literature or film is a relatively comfortable way to conduct this important discourse. It allows us to discuss various dimensions of and challenges to diversity that we might otherwise not talk about," she added.

The book club is a part of NIGMS' workplace diversity initiative, which is a component of the NIH diversity initiative plan.

NIGMS book club members meet informally.

"This kind of an activity supports the belief that the better we know and understand each other and our racial and ethnic backgrounds, the better we appreciate our differences. I think reading books about different racial and ethnic groups has had a very positive influence on how we relate to each other," René said.

Tina Lancaster, NIGMS equal employment specialist, is the institute's diversity catalyst, a position originally held by former NIGMS employee Lynn Pupkar. Lancaster starts the book selection process by soliciting staff input on books to read. The books under consideration focus on topics such as cultural and world issues, personal challenges and discovery and social concerns. Choices have included fiction and non-fiction. Employees vote on books of interest, and the top vote-getter is selected. Book club members have about a month to read the books before participating in an hour-long discussion led by a volunteer.

So far, the club has read A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines, Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, Fighting Fire by Caroline Paul, Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver and Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled by Nancy Mairs.

Stacy Charland, chief information officer at NIGMS, said that among the books the club has read, her favorite was Pigs in Heaven, a novel about a young Cherokee girl who is illegally adopted by a Caucasian woman and is later sought out by her Cherokee people who want to return her to the tribe. "I was fascinated by the descriptions of the extended family life of the Cherokee. It really made me appreciate what [the girl] was losing by being adopted into a 'typical' modern family, rather than being a part of her tribe," Charland said.

The book club has been meeting since February 1998. It includes a number of members who have participated since the beginning as well as members who have joined more recently. The group represents a diverse mix of scientific, professional, administrative, technical and clerical staff.

According to Dr. Judith Greenberg, acting director of NIGMS, "The book discussions bring together men and women, younger and older staff and people from all backgrounds. The books are enjoyable to read and the discussions are stimulating and fun. Everyone has important ideas to share, which has given us all a new appreciation for our coworkers."


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