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Los Angeles AFB, SMC connect cultures unified in diversity

Kimloan Le, from the 61st Force Support Squadron, performs an instrumental piece on a dan tranh, or Vietnamese zither, in the courtyard of the Schriever Space Complex during the 2015 Space and Missile Systems Center's Diversity Day event, Sept. 23, 2015 at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Corrice)

Kimloan Le, from the 61st Force Support Squadron, performs an instrumental piece on a dan tranh, or Vietnamese zither, in the courtyard of the Schriever Space Complex during the 2015 Space and Missile Systems Center's Diversity Day event, Sept. 23, 2015 at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Corrice)

Lani Smith, the executive director of the Space Superiority Systems Directorate, speaks about her experiences during the 2015 Space and Missile Systems Center’s Diversity Day panel discussion, Sept 23, 2015, in the Gordon Conference Center at the Schriever Space Complex at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. This year’s event featured a panel discussion, performances showcasing the talents of base employees, ethnic foods and informational displays. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Corrice)

Lani Smith, the executive director of the Space Superiority Systems Directorate, speaks about her experiences during the 2015 Space and Missile Systems Center’s Diversity Day panel discussion, Sept 23, 2015, in the Gordon Conference Center at the Schriever Space Complex at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. This year’s event featured a panel discussion, performances showcasing the talents of base employees, ethnic foods and informational displays. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Corrice)

Participants try their hand at shaving coconuts at the Asian-Pacific American Council booth during diversity day activities at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Corrice)

Participants try their hand at shaving coconuts at the Asian-Pacific American Council booth during diversity day activities at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Corrice)

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, El Segundo, Calif. (AFNS) -- The courtyard of the Space and Missile Systems Center's Schriever Space Complex took on the look of a mini United Nations conference Sept. 23 as people from various ethnicities and races, representing cultural, educational and geographical heritages, religious faiths and socioeconomic or political backgrounds came together to celebrate their diversity.

Under the theme of "Connecting Cultures," the base’s annual Diversity Day allowed active-duty service members, families and civilians to experience slices of culture through open discussion, dance, music and food to better appreciate the success of today's Air Force and other military branches through the diversity of its members.

"Here at SMC we have multiple cultures, if you think about it,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, SMC commander and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, prior to the start of a panel discussion on leadership in a diverse Air Force, held in the Gordon Conference Center. “We have active duty, we have reserves, we have civilians and we have federally-funded research and development corporation folks, primarily Aerospace and the minor corporations. We have (Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance) and the prime contractors, as well as members of our sister services and liaisons from our coalition partners.

"But even with that diverse set of cultures here at the center, we do share one mission. And we must be able to understand our differences in order for us to work together. Our cultures essentially dictate how, when and even why we do the work that we do," Greaves said. "It's being able to understand those differences and being able to work with those differences and similarities that affect our ability to execute toward mission success, and that's the bottom line. That's why a day like this is extremely important."

Having grown up in New York City, Greaves related his personal experience, appreciation and understanding for the positive impact a diverse workforce yields today.

"We're very privileged to have on hand here at SMC a very, very diverse workforce here in Southern California -- one of the most diverse, broader communities within the United States,” he said. “The Air Force has come online in a big way to promote the positive benefits of diversity within the Air Force and, most importantly, adopting a culture of inclusiveness; period; dot; no excuses. That's our aim within the U.S. Air Force, from the secretary on down: to create, establish, sustain and promote the environment of inclusiveness. Any action that precludes that or goes against that will not be tolerated."

According to Greaves, "Interacting with others from various backgrounds, cultures, experiences help us all to grow, and I hope that's what you see at the center. It also allows us to introduce innovative approaches to situations that we're presented with. It's always good to get away from group think, and being here in this community at SMC has been a tremendous asset."

Greaves' comments were echoed during the panel discussion moderated by Cordell DeLaPena, director of SMC's Program Management and Integration Directorate and an SMC champion for diversity.

"We take a moment to embrace and acknowledge the contributions of the different cultures that make up this country and our military," DeLaPena said. "We also recognize the future strengths in the evolution of a more diverse Air Force. The evolution means leaders must understand the dimensions of diversity and how diversity has shaped and will shape our understanding of leadership."

Leadership panelist Col. Al Burse, the senior materiel leader of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Generation and Operations Division of the Launch Systems Directorate explained diversity succinctly as, "Why I have one of the best jobs in the Air Force right now, to be launching national space systems from coast to coast."

"As you can see, I don't sound, I don't look like, and I probably don't think like many of you here in this audience today," Burse said. "But, that doesn't really matter to me. You know what matters? It's what I bring to the fight for our nation."

Lani Smith, the executive director of the Space Superiority Systems Directorate, related her situation as a young Air Force lieutenant in the past, when physical differences was how organizations originally addressed diversity.

"Wherever I went, I improved the diversity profile, because in a couple of areas, I'm half Japanese and I'm female. So right there, I was already bumping up the numbers for the organization that I was in," Smith said, with a grin.

"Now, I have to say even recently, thirty years later, I'm over 50, I'm Asian, I'm female and it just so happens I'm married to a woman. So right there, I'm hitting four big ones. I'll admit though that being a poster child means I can't be complacent about diversity," Smith said.

"I can't just strut around and say, 'I'm doing it for SMC; I don't have to worry about my own actions',” Smith said. “You look across this panel and you see all of us and we appear to be very different, but we actually have a lot of similarities because of our military background, because of what we do. So I would argue we're not necessarily a panel of diversity, but we have had different experiences with diversity."

Senior Master Sgt. Nancy Gonzales, the security forces manager for the 61st Security Forces Squadron who has deployed six times in support of operations Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, pointed out that as a career cop in one of the largest Air Force specialty codes, it was very much a male-dominated world when she joined 20 years ago, a decade after women were allowed into that particular field.

"I never felt any different. I never felt like I was treated differently. And then I realized we're not a traditional unit. We don't come to work and sit at a desk and not talk to the person that we don't like next to us," Gonzales said humorously.

"We are in vehicles. Two people at a time, doing a job and you have to be a team. And not only do you have to be a team doing a job, you have guns...and they are loaded," said Gonzales, as laughter came over the audience. "So you have to get along. You have to be tolerant with people that are different than you."

John Baldonado, the chief of Acquisition Contracts for SMC, related a similar story from a different perspective. A civilian engineer with no prior military experience, of Asian-Pacific descent, and a first-generation immigrant brought up in a traditional household with a family ethic and cultural traits of being told to work hard to achieve his goals, Baldonado explained how the environment at SMC was very different back in the 1990s.

"There weren't any civilian program managers. Mostly it was military. Also, not too many Asian-American program managers were in the area. They were either in technical fields, or different functional expertise areas, such as contracts and financial management," Baldonado said.

"Fortunately, I was around a lot of leaders on the base here who saw something in me. I was unique. I think that was an advantage; you stand out really well if you're unique," said Baldonado, whose comment drew a few chuckles from the audience. "Also being different during that time, it gives you some extra motivation sometimes when you're a little different, when you're trying to fit in with others and trying to distinguish yourself."

Baldonado attributes his success to some great leadership and mentors within SMC who interacted on his behalf and tried to shape his career progress that taught him a great lesson.

"Being different in the Air Force can be very challenging, but the awareness of diversity, the awareness of cultures and the awareness of how those cultures interact and work to get along, eventually fulfills and strengthens the career fields and leads to success," Baldonado said.

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