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DIVERSITY PAYS DIVIDENDS Outward Bound teaches appreciation of differences


We had just paddled six, muscle-aching hours down th Potomac in a driving rainstorm. Despite our rain gear, we were soaked from our hair to our sneakers. Then, three miles from our next campsite, the sun momentarily broke through the clouds.

As one member of the canoe expedition after another looked backward, we were transfixed by the sight of a huge double rainbow covering the sky, lifting our spirits. Some smiled, some lifted paddles overhead with a whoop of joy. Others just drifted and stared. It was, in the parlance of the staff, an Outward Bound Moment.

We were into the second day of an invitational course, offered by the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound Program, a non-profit organization that is part of Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. Invitational courses are mini-Outward Bound experiences, to show community leaders what the organization offers.

Our group included a Naval Academy instructor, a TV anchorwoman, a toxicologist, a community activist, an insurance executive, a non-profit executive assistant and Outward Bound staffers.

Our ages spanned more than three decades, wonderful grist for the conversation around campfires or while paddling. And, like grist, our different personalities and experiences had the potential for chafing against each other's boundaries.

Over four intense days, we paddled, hiked, set up and broke down camps, and were challenged by the staff with tasks designed to test our mettle under environmental stresses and to confront our assumptions about working together.

On the final day we swallowed our fears and, with the help of a group process we had come to trust, we completed a ropes course. Poised -- or should I say not so poised -- on two very shaky feet, we traversed challenging obstacles, all while some 30 feet off the ground.

All meant to prove what? Having lived in Maine, I've had several experiences at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Penobscot Bay, from sailing in an open boat in a raging gale, to spending three days alone on an uninhabited island with a small, empty tin can, six matches, a fishhook and string, a small plastic tarp and three chocolate bars.

While it may not always be fun, any Outward Bound alumni will tell you he or she would do it again in a flash. Why?

Because, with due respect to our school system, Outward Bound teaches poignantly the most fundamental educational lesson in life: Know Thyself.

Outward Bound is a metaphor. Or, more accurately, a series of metaphors. In thinking of the value of Outward Bound, my mind wandered to the horrors of Los Angeles, where senseless violent acts grow from an increasing intolerance of diversity.

The lessons an Outward Bound experience teaches us about diversity extend far beyond mere acceptance of differences.

When a group faces challenges that range from cooking to carabiners (a specialized metal safety fastener used for climbing), diversity is quickly seen for what it is -- something of extraordinary value.

The more diverse the group -- and hence the views and options -- the greater the chance for survival or, in the case of an Outward Bound experience, for increased comfort. Diversity is embraced and honored.

We discard the stereotype lenses through which we view the world. We begin to internalize how diversity is the thread in the fabric of our nation.

Ours was an unlikely group, to be sure. The members were as different as night and day. Yet, by the time our experience was over, having supported and been supported by others, we were able to forge an uncommon bond.

I think of just how much our schools, our social institutions, our political systems could use such an experience to teach lessons in tolerance, acceptance and embracing of diversity.

One of the wonders of Outward Bound is how its staff consistently teaches these lessons, without sacrificing other, equally important ones. In next week's column we'll examine two other organizations.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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