July 1st, 2012

Psychologist is diversity specialist, novelist

They say that everyone has a novel in them and, for Deborah Plummer, Ph.D., getting that novel out onto paper started as escapism and turned into a well received novel about a woman very similar to herself…except that she sets out to solve a murder mystery and winds up targeted for death.

Plummer is a nationally recognized diversity specialist, writer (as Deborah Plummer Bussey) of “Racing Across the Lines: Changing Race Relations through Friendships,” winner of a Mayflower Award for best publication in the category of Church and Society, and editor of the “Handbook of Diversity Management: Beyond Awareness to Competency Based Learning.” She works full-time as vice chancellor of human resources, diversity and inclusion at University of Massachusetts Medical School, and is a professor in its psychiatry department. Plummer is also a featured blogger for the Huffington Post.

She picked up a pen after the book tour for “Racing Across the Lines,” when she found that the one detail of her life that most piqued people’s interest was the fact that she is also a former nun.

She spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about her work, her books, and the complementary and opposing lives of a psychologist and a Catholic nun.


Q: Your first book is a study of the relationships that cross cultural divides?

A: Yes. That book began as a curiosity about why some folks had friends that crossed racial lines and others didn’t. So the book explored why that was so and it also looked at spirituality as a transformative means for transcending racial lines.

Q: In the studies that you did across the country for this book, did you find any difference with friendships depending on the respondents’ age?

A: There definitely was a generational difference but after a certain age, it still separated into same-race friendships. There are a lot of hypotheses for why this might be so. One black male, a university professor, talked about having people who would call him a friend until it got competitive, when it got to be about power dynamics.

Q: Why did you decide to write fiction? Was this something you always wanted to do or did you have a brilliant idea and sat down to do it?

A: A friend who was an attorney and wrote fiction on the side encouraged me to try it as a release, a catharsis. So, I began it as a hobby and it started to weave into this cozy mystery with characters that I got to know and understand. It became fun and a new way to express some things or play around with a fantasy piece. When you are doing academic or journal writing, you have to worry about citations and fact checks. So it was really liberating to write fiction where I could just make stuff up.

When I was doing the book tour for “Racing Across the Lines,” most people would ask questions about the fact that I was a former nun. So, I started to make up this story about a woman psychologist and former nun who believed a patient didn’t commit suicide. She starts to search out the truth and gets involved in a political sex scandal and her life becomes in jeopardy.

Q: On the tour, you said that people were interested in your career path, going from a nun to a psychologist. How do the two fields relate?

A: I think as a psychologist there is an attraction to humanity and to people’s behaviors and as a nun you delve into a love and a quest for a world where people are at their greatest good and you can contribute to society and make it better. I found that the thread was people.

But there is clearly the faith dimension of being a nun which has to go beyond reason and I think psychology and any academic pursuit or inquiry into a field of study is far more empirical evidence-based, more rational. Everything has to be proven or theoretically based so there is not that room for faith. That is how they differ.

Q: Being a HR director is another interesting  leap. How did you end up in human resources?

A: I came up as a psychologist, started doing campus counseling and therapy and then began a master’s degree program in diversity at Cleveland State University. I was recruited by Cleveland Clinic and became its chief diversity officer and then was recruited here.

In November, they decided to combine offices and I was promoted to head both offices. It is not unusual for organizations to have their equal opportunity housed with HR because it’s all about human capital.

I am responsible for all the people strategy at UMass Medical School, one of five campuses of the UMass system. I’m in charge of the traditional human resources, talent management, employee relations as well as diversity and inclusion in our equal opportunity office. I also teach cultural competency.

Q: How have things changed with students. Are they more open to diversity than 20 years ago?

A: I think the generation of today, the Millennials, grow up in a more diverse and global society so they naturally have ‘under-the-table’ skills that just have to be made ‘table-top’ in their education process. They are far more culturally competent than previous generations who lived in culturally myopic environments.

Q: You are also an expert in diversity management?

A: During all that time, I also had DL Plummer and Associates, which began as a traditional private practice that morphed into a consulting firm. I actually don’t do a lot of it anymore, mainly just speaking engagements, but it was a full-blown consulting firm where I worked with more than 60 organizations including corporations like Anheuser Busch, plus healthcare, government, educational, faith-based and non-profit organizations. Basically we worked to design a people strategy to build an inclusive work environment which includes everything from cultural assessments to training development to individual and executive coaching.

Q: How does psychology relate to the field of diversity management?

A: Those of us who entered diversity management through psychology understand how to make the interactions that happen across the levels of human systems more effective for building inclusive environments and for creating the kinds of society where we can manage the challenges and shape the future by learning how to work and be effective with those we most vehemently disagree with, which is more and more going to be the case as a global society.

The reason I write, in fiction and non fiction and even in my blogging for Huffington Post, is all to spark dialogue, to spark conversation and dialogue across differences.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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