Lecture discusses the lack of heart in the workplace

Last Friday, a group of individuals from various positions throughout the Portland community gathered at the Social Sustainability Colloquium to discuss the reserved mention of human spirit from the technical aspects of the workplace.

Dr. Deborah Peterson, an assistant professor in the Executive Leadership and Initial Administrators License Program, recently published her article, “A Missing Piece in the Sustainability Movement: the Human Spirit,” in a peer-reviewed sustainability journal, which acted as the seed for Friday’s meeting.

“It seems that, in our society we are better prepared to talk about tangible, measurable aspects of who we are,” Peterson said. “Categories such as our age, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, education level, social class, where we live, what job we do and other groupings. Yet we are so much more than a category or grouping.”

Marion Sharp, a program specialist in the School of Social Work at Portland State who organized this week’s colloquium, expressed her appreciation of the depth of the discussion around Peterson’s article.

“There’s something about when people are fully engaged in thinking about and talking about these ideas and sharing their story,” she said. “I really value when it’s a topic that clearly speaks to people, and it engages them very deeply and personally. I feel that was kind of what we ended up having today.”

Ultimately, Peterson hoped to convince those reading her article to begin to integrate the identified principles into their own lives and communities, “resulting in increased understanding of those who are like us and different from us, and increases the interconnectedness of our natural, spiritual, social and economic systems in a sustainable way.”

Passion for what you do is a component of human spirit that Sharp personally identified with during this discussion. “[Work] is so much easier if you have this connection, whether it’s a connection with people you enjoy or whether it speaks to your heart,” she said. “Even the most deeply rational researcher cares about their research, cares about the impact, cares about what kind of difference they will make. And to me, that’s where the passion and the spirit comes in.”

Bob Johnson, a retired engineering executive who acted as a mentor for Peterson, provided his insight into Peterson’s unique interpretation of community structures.

“The idea of sustainability, I think, includes every aspect of human life and endeavors. And all it takes is an awareness by people of how their actions, decisions, etc. impact others as well as our world, especially the environment. That awareness is the first step followed by attempts to make personal improvements by each person as they are able,” Johnson said.

Sharp expressed her hope that what was discussed at the colloquium stayed with the participants, and that they left thinking about the multiple directions in which Peterson’s article can be approached.

Peterson found inspiration for her article through her thirty years of experience as a public school teacher and administrator. “One of the questions that kept coming back to me throughout my career, then also recently…is what is it that causes people to thrive in really complex organizations and tumultuous times?” Peterson said.

As an example, Peterson recalled a study she conducted of five high schools that were successful with Latino students. Through her research, she determined that it was the sense of human spirit and interconnectedness among students and faculty that determined the success of most children in the schools.

“And these communities were racially, ethnically and linguistically very diverse, had high poverty rates, and yet they experienced this success during a time of economic decline, a time when many communities in other states blamed Latino families for the economic woes,” Peterson said. “These schools provide an example of communities that engaged in sustainability of the human spirit to reach educational goals.”

Johnson states that Peterson’s article “is a good wake up call to all of us to be more aware and caring in all we do as to the impact we make on the sustainability of our world and all in it.”

The full text of Peterson’s article, “A Missing Piece of the Sustainability Movement: the Human Spirit,” can be found in the PDXScholar service of the PSU library website.