He sometimes calls himself the "chief 'what if' officer."
Diversity expert Steve L. Robbins travels the country challenging people to ask: What if things could be different? What if individuals could abandon stereotypes and accept others who may not look, act or sound like them?
Speaking in a heavy accent, the Vietnam-born college professor met with about 600 city employees during two work sessions Monday. The crowd burst into laughter when his accent turned into a well-spoken American dialect after just a few minutes.
Robbins likes to open seminars using a pretend "bad Japanese accent" to prove that people often harbor preconceived notions about individuals who are different.
It was Diversity Training Day in City Hall.
"This is very unique and historic for the City of Buffalo," said Human Resources Commissioner Leonard A. Matarese, whose office co-sponsored the event with the city's Commission on Citizens Rights and Community Relations.
Mayor Byron W. Brown told participants that promoting diversity is one of his administration's key priorities. City employees from every department took part in the sessions, with a special emphasis being placed on workers who are involved in customer service, midlevel managers and department heads.
Diversity goes far beyond the hiring process, officials stressed. It also involves fostering an environment where employees can work in harmony and deliver services to residents without being hindered by prejudice.
Robbins, a Michigan State University professor, talked about how he and his mother arrived in the United States to confront the challenges of poverty and discrimination. His mother committed suicide when he was a young adult.
Blending anecdotes and history with frequent doses of humor, Robbins urged people to "step beyond comfort zones" and learn about people who have different cultures and lifestyles. Sometimes, he said, stereotyping prevents people from seeing others as they truly are.
"I know black people who don't have rhythm, and I know white guys who can jump," Robbins told a receptive audience.
Camille Hopkins was among the employees who attended the diversity training. Hopkins made history in 2002 by becoming the first city worker to transition openly from male to female. Hopkins praised the city for the diversity seminar, saying, ."It was definitely helpful."