Story by MC2 Michael Lopez, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3
Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 sat down in small groups for a frank and open discussion about diversity and inclusion as part of a command-wide training event.
The training was facilitated by NMCB-3’s Resiliency Team to encourage dialogue about race relations and inclusion within the Navy where all opinions are heard from one another, but an overall goal of understanding is met. The topic of this training came to fruition by similar discussions and gestures throughout the Department of Defense to address issues around discrimination and diversity since the death of George Floyd, May 25.
In a video message to the Fleet in late June titled One Team, One Navy: A Video Message from CNO Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday addressed the need to remove any racial barriers and improve inclusion throughout the force. He then strongly encouraged all Navy leaders to begin a dialogue within their commands. He said “as a Navy we must seize this opportunity to engage in conversations about race relations and inclusion within our force. Now is the time to have open and honest conversations across our Navy.”
NMCB-3 took that message and Chief Engineering Aide Willie Blanding and Chief Equipment Operator Joshua Harr developed a training plan to address the issues on a unit level.
“Do I think a lot of Seabees want to have this conversation? No,” said Blanding. “Do I think they need this conversation? Absolutely, because people like to be comfortable. That’s our natural default. Being comfortable is good sometimes because you’re not stressed out, but sometimes we need to be uncomfortable in these situations so we solve problems and grow together. This is not a topic that comes off easy and it’s something that needs to be done.”
The training began with facilitators encouraging Seabees to discuss their past experiences with discrimination in or out of the Navy. Seabees shared their stories to understand what others may or may not have gone through or have seen and their outlook or experiences because of it.
“We understand that diversity and inclusion is an issue outside of the Navy as well as inside, so we’re trying to incorporate both of those outlooks into this training to get people talking about their experiences and really just educate people who may not have had those similar experiences,” said Harr. “We also know that everyone has their own story and hopefully we find similarity in our differences.”
A 1st class petty officer led the training for several groups within Headquarters Company and opened up with a personal story. He explained that he used to discriminate while growing up in Oakland, Calif., and it took a fellow Sailor saving his life for him to see that he was wrong.
Early in his career, the petty officer was helping to fight a compartment fire on board his first ship in the middle of the night when he suddenly fell down four flights of stairs and couldn’t get up. Luckily, his shipmate, a gay Sailor who he once discriminated against, was there to carry him to safety. That moment changed his entire outlook.
“When I was younger, if someone would have just sat me down and had a discussion with me to explain that how I was thinking was not right, it wouldn’t have taken this man saving my life to make me finally see differently,” said the petty officer. “We can’t be afraid to have these tough discussions because it’s the only way we learn. I’m not perfect, and I know that I have to continue to keep learning all the time to see things from the other side.”
When the discussion moved to what can be done to promote a culture where diversity is appreciated and everyone is made to feel equal and accepted, Yeoman 1st Class Courtney Tyler, a participant, said he believes frank discussions and consistency is key.
“An aggressive approach to correcting these issues has to be made,” said Tyler. “When we see a wall, we have to break it down, but you have to know this takes consistency. We’ve seen that we’ve done a good job with combating sexual assault over the years because of our focus on it, and we need that same focus on diversity. We can’t tip toe around it because we have to see that we’re a reflection of society as a whole. We have to talk about it openly and hold each other accountable.”
After sharing and discussing personal experiences, the facilitators introduced “The Lifeboat Exercise.” The exercise presents participants with a scenario in which 14 people are on a sinking ship, but only eight people can be saved with a life boat. The participants are made to choose which eight people they can take with them, but first they are given background information for each of the people on the sinking ship. The fictional 14 people on the ship represent many different mixes of age, backgrounds, occupations, life styles, levels of health, vices and more. It’s up to participants of the training to decide how their personal morals and values will lead them to choose which eight to take on the life boat.
The decisions did not come easily for Delta Company Seabees as they discussed their options within their small groups. They were focused on judging the fictional characters based on a whole-person concept, but found that agreeing on some choices was more difficult than they thought.
“I second thought a few things,” said Construction Electrician 2nd Class Nathan Fisher. “It’s easy to compartmentalize things. My group didn’t even consider things like race or language; we looked at each character as someone who deserves a chance but then we started seeing what we were subconsciously valuing.”
The purpose is for participants to recognize what guided their decisions, the dangers of labeling and stereotyping themselves or others, recognize other perspectives, and better incorporate these perspectives into their values and decision making process moving forward.
“I think anything that gets us out of our comfort zone mentally is a positive thing,” said Fisher. “I also think this exercise and these discussions were a great opportunity for us all to get to know and understand each other better – especially getting to know each other like this across different ranks, ages, and cultures and backgrounds. In the end I think we’re all part of a military family and I hope that everyone can feel some sort of residual bonding effect from this like I do.”