In Her Own Words: Adrienne Livingston on Cross-Cultural Learnings

Editor's Note: Before taking on the leadership role at the Black United Fund of Oregon, Adrienne Livingston, spent two years working and studying iin the Dominican Republic. In Her Own Words, Adrienne talks about early experiences in navigating across cultures and lessons learned from her studies abroad.

I went to Jefferson High School, then Oregon State University, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in international business and international studies, and a minor in Spanish.

I attended Oregon State on the Underrepresented Minority Tuition Award. At first, I didn’t know what I wanted to study, all I knew was that I wanted to go to college. I wasn’t interested in any of the sciences, but I also loved math. I loved calculus and problem-solving. Business was a good option, because management is applicable in any area.

I took four years of Spanish in high school, and loved I loved the Spanish language and culture. I’ve always loved diversity of cultures, and international business was a good fit. I attended Harvey Scott Elementary, and went to school with many children from various Asian backgrounds. I had Latino friends whose families spoke Spanish at home. I’d have sleepovers with Vietnamese and Cambodian friends.

Studying business in college prepared me well for my role here at the Black United Fund. I got a basic background in all aspects of running a business: accounting, marketing, management, and finance.

Of course, what really helped in the long run is having hands-on experience. What the courses don’t teach you is learning how to work well with people, how real-life situations happen.

Before traveling to the Dominican Republic, I had studied abroad in Costa Rica, Ecuador and Denmark. During my study abroad experiences, I was always one of few people of color from the United States.

Racism and discrimination is other countries look totally different. In Ecuador, where distinctions are made based on skin color, I wasn’t considered Black because I was light-skinned. There were distinct disparities among Afro-Ecuadorians and the indigenous people. It made me think about why Blacks everywhere, even dark-skinned indigenous people, have to be at the bottom of the totem pole? That burdened me.

I received a scholarship from the East Portland Rotary Club to serve as an ambassador-scholar. I studied business in a Catholic university. Instruction was in Spanish, and I was the only American in the class. I worked and studied at the American Chamber of Commerce of the Dominican Republic for two years. I was able to interject a little bit of Black United Fund into that organization, by helping with the grants program.

The people I worked with were great, especially Elena. She worked hard and expected a lot from her team, but she was also very interested in each of us. I liked her management style, because she showed how a manager can be caring, even while taking care of a lot in the organization. It’s great because we spend so much time in the office – 40 hours or more for many of us. She showed how a manager can take a true and honest interest in an individual and still command respect.

My African-American culture blended nicely with Dominican culture. It was interesting to learn that Many Dominicans have an African heritage. I went as a learner and I made friends with a lot of Dominican women at work. I took an interest in learning about the culture. Being a woman of color, my approach is different than the traditional white American history of going into a foreign land and influencing the culture.

The American side of me came into play at a meeting talking about a project that I played a role in. I was in charge of a certain area of a golf tournament, and identified areas that could be improved. I mentioned those areas in the meeting, and one of the women took the comments as criticism, that I made her look bad.

I realized I was very direct. The experience made me realize the importance of recognizing how to communicate more effectively, to make sure that issues are addressed, while allowing people to save face. It definitely taught me important lessons in leading meetings and negotiating in the Dominican culture. It was a good lesson in what diplomacy looks like in a different culture.

Spring 2008 Colors of Influence

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