The first line of the recently crafted Somerville Vision Statement includes a sentence about valuing the diversity of our people, cultures, housing, and economy. Since “diversity” is so prominently represented in our vision for our community, I’ve been thinking about this word and what it means.
The dictionary definition of “diversity” is the condition of differing from one another. The areas where we differ hold the potential for conflict, but they are also the rich areas that invite personal growth and make our lives more interesting. It seems, however, that in many cases “diversity” is being used (by myself and others) to indicate racial and ethnic differences rather than all the many ways in which we diverge. In some settings, “diversity” has become a polite way to refer to the racial make-up of a group. I used to work at a corporation where the statement “we need more diversity” meant that the workforce was too white.
It’s interesting to me that the meaning of “diversity” has become focused around race and ethnicity. Obviously there are many other ways in which people can diverge from each other: religion, politics, physical abilities, family history, economic status, age, sexual orientation, and more. When my former employer’s human resource managers talked about seeking workforce diversity, I don’t think they meant they were actively recruiting more Jews, paraplegics, Catholics, or 60-year-old gay men — all of which were also under-represented on the company’s staff.
When we say here in Somerville that we value the diversity of our people, do we mean the full range of ways in which we differ? Are we saying that it’s fun learning about holiday traditions of different cultures? Or are we saying that we really value multiple points of view on hotly contended issues? Is it more socially acceptable to talk about including different races than it is to talk about including folks with missing limbs? Is it easier to talk about seeking a rainbow of skin tones than it is to talk about actively including Muslims, atheists, or transgendered individuals? And what about differences that require physical accommodation and not just laudable mission statements? (See Eila’s posting about access to city polling places for the physically impaired.)
Maybe we assume that if we pursue racial diversity that all of the other forms of diversity will naturally follow. It could be that after filling out so many forms on which we’re asked to identify our race/ethnicity that we’ve come to think of race as a public attribute and the other differences as more private and therefore not acceptable ways to identify and profile a population.
I’ve been a member of several local organizations that have made “diversifying” their membership a stated goal. In each case, the diversity sought was multicultural. In each case the group asked the question: “How do we get these folks to come to us?” They were asking how to integrate other races and ethnicities into their world view and value system. It seemed to me that they might be seeking racial diversity as a validation of their own mission, as a feather in their own cap. They were not actively seeking to move toward and understand the ways in which their group might not be relevant or accessible to those who were underrepresented.
It’s essential that we pursue racial and ethnic diversity in all aspects of our society. Until recently this was not possible, and there are still many places where it’s not practiced. As we do so, let’s seek what feels even harder to me right now — for us to really know and embrace the full spectrum of ways in which we might differ from each other.