Movies Are Vehicle for Diversity Discussion

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 2, 2009

"Little Miss Sunshine," "The Great Debaters" and the biography "Frida" are three very different movies with a common thread—all have prompted lively discussions about diversity for employees who participate in the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) “Diversity Film Society.”

SHRM’s Diversity Action Committee (DAC) initiated the movie group to promote diversity education beyond the typical training session, according to Eric Peterson, Diversity and Inclusion manager at SHRM.

“Diversity [education] doesn’t have to be a one-time thing. It can be a recurring event,” Peterson said. “And discussion groups like this often show people that diversity messages are all around them,” he said. “People of different backgrounds will see the exact same [movie] scene and take completely different messages from it.”

In "Little Miss Sunshine," for example, “the women in the group so identified with this little girl” who wants to participate in a beauty pageant but deep down fears she isn’t pretty enough.

Other characters include a gay uncle and a person with a physical disability.

“There is this real message that’s constantly being snuck in: I’m not who you think I am, or I am who you think I am and I want to be something you don’t expect of me,” Peterson said. The movie portrays what it is to be different on a macro level, he added.

DAC initiated the film society in spring 2009. Its fourth selection, "Far From Heaven," was scheduled to be discussed in November 2009.

Employees receive notification of the upcoming film discussion and are encouraged to rent and watch the selection at home and then participate in a one-hour lunchtime discussion held at SHRM headquarters on a given date. A dial-in number is provided for employees working remotely. One employee called from Florida during the "Frida" discussion, Peterson said, and discussions have attracted from 10 to 15 employees.

Unlike some book clubs where participants use a reading guide when they delve into a selection, the DAC film society has a more relaxed approach. Knowing that they will be discussing the film is preparation enough for participants, according to Peterson, who noted that “they already had their antennae up a little bit.”

Peterson or another SHRM employee with a diversity background leads the discussion. While the moderator is prepared with a list of questions from which to spur conversation, the discussion is not limited to those questions.

He advises organizations to be sensitive to content and movie ratings when making movie selections for employee discussion, and to include a comedy in the mix.

“You can do this very, very cheaply,” he said, and a film society is an example of how a diversity initiative can be a recurring event. A discussion group like this one “teaches diversity lessons, but also teaches employees to become savvier as media consumers, to pay more attention to the messages they’re given,” Peterson said.

In the trailer for "Little Miss Sunshine," for example, there is a clip showing the family racing frantically back to the gas station where they have left the little girl, Olive.

The bright yellow van careens toward her and the door slides open and hands reach toward her as Olive jumps inside while her father shouts frantically, “no one gets left behind, no one gets left behind!”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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