Monday, March 28, 2011

Elements of Diversity – How change agents, activists, advocates, and other do-gooders seem to not get it after 40 years of trying.

("Unfinished Painting" by Keith Haring)
I am disappointed in the still inconsistent and unfinished definition of the “D” word applied by mainstream spaces and do-gooder change agents. The word is a bad choice to describe the ideal we seek, and the most incomplete to describe the cure my social anger. “Diversity” has been tainted before I got a chance to play for the team, it’s the jersey we wear on the court, and few in the team know this.

This problem came to light when I attended “New Models in Media and Activism” sponsored by Campus Progress. The event was a panel discussion with Amanda Terkel - Senior politics reporter for The Huffington Post, Amy Austin – Publisher for Washington City Paper, Latoya Peterson – Editor of, and Melinda Wittstock - Founder, CEO, and Bureau Chief of Capitol News Connection about the intersection of women, activism, and social media. The 80+ attendees comprised of about 90% 20-something white females, a sprinkle of Black females, drips of white males, and one Latino Albino (guess). The panel provided good insight, suggestions, and anecdotes on their experiences and contexts, showing a spectrum of voices from Print, Web 1.0, 1.5 to 2.0 media. The event also provided examples of the ineptitude of many change agents to grasp what diversity means in real-world situations. One panelist painfully tried to keep up with the others by saying things like “Well, that’s why women are better at getting along because we communicate better than men, which is why diversity is important” and other lovely words of wisdom. Throughout the event, audience members and moderators mostly framed issues of diversity in simple terms like getting more African Americans and women in the media. A white male student from American University correlated diversity troubles at his school with what was happening in the media, as Black candidates who run for student government president never win, asking “how can we combat that so we can be more diverse?”

Such comments assume that diversity is measured only by the number of Blacks, women, and Latinos in the room, without considering the structural reframing, process, and competencies that can make the term usable. “Diversity” as shorthand for a tally of physical bodies and archetypes is one of the major issues this term faces for validity and understanding. This incomplete definition makes whites feel apart and not responsible, targeted groups into tokens who feel responsible for carrying the burden in get-togethers, and ultimately diminishing collective knowledge. And for those who accompany the word with action, process, and competency, it annoys us when others in the choir don’t sing with the entire range of notes true diversity asks for.

Another saddening consequence is the neglect of the knowledge, processes, outcomes, and techniques diversity can offer for not just the eradication of inequity, but the addition of new tools of success and growth for organizations, people, and social institutions. There is an untapped resource here where folks can learn and utilize these beautiful gems of cognitive, psychological, leadership, and interpersonal skills. Latinidad, code-switching, double-consciousness, appropriation, Queer theory, communalism, liberation education, etc. can be used for science, math, engineering, business, politics, and health as tools to understand and navigate our society. You should’ve seen the look on people’s faces when I walked into dean’s offices, department meetings, and faculty task forces as they couldn’t figure out why I was sitting there next them… clueless Ph.D. holders.

The worst crime of limiting diversity to stockpiling identities is that it leaves black, white, whomever, oblivious and shackled from taking any social action. I have participated in too many dialogue sessions, hate crime debriefings, class discussions, and lunchroom chit chat where targeted groups have vent sessions, whites stay quiet, and everyone feels good for being in conversation, yet empty that nothing has been done. Everything returns to the status quo of disproportionate favoritism, neglect, anger, and struggle. Why is it that these feelings and situations do not convert well into action? Why do we like the notion of diversity so much, yet we still struggle in using it in the classroom? Why does a room full of positive change agents ask the question “What can I do?” The reason is because action steps, knowledge, competencies, and processes have been severed, or never included, in “diversity.”

In tribute to Strunk and White, I present some dimensions of diversity that should be in everyone’s composition. I would go so far as to say that “Diversity” is completely ineffective without these concepts, which are connected to action. They are abstract in nature because these are three sections that are to be designed differently for each situation.

1. Diversity is content knowledge and text: as stated earlier, there is a wealth of information, lessons, techniques, and vocabulary that diversity has unearthed and exposed for all people to draw from. Much of my own Latinidad was informed by W.E.B. DuBois’s introduction of double-consciousness to American culture. Gloria Anzaldua’s notion of borders can help higher education look at how they frame “global” “intercultural” and “internationals” as it has informed me with understanding the intra-group dynamics between Latinos who come to school as International Students, and those who are U.S. domestic.

2. Diversity provides a set of tools: When I first designed a Latino Leadership course for the University of Maryland, I introduced leadership halfway through the semester, not until we laid out a vocabulary of what Latinidad is in relation to social consciousness, followed by a survey of social issues affecting Latinos. Reappropriaton, code-switching, critical thinking, inclusion, dealing with difference, combating oppression, dialogue, and the third-eye feeds directly into Leadership as a tool for social change, a hybrid, not an addendum to be added afterward. Resulting models would inherently have these components within their DNA. Early Hip Hop is another example of a set of tools designed by a certain few, carrying on the ability to be held and utilized by many outside.

3. Diversity a continuous process with an outcome to be seen and felt: building blocks and  masonry must result in the creation of a building. But what does it look like? Take into account which voices were present, what conflicts arose and how were they addressed, what processes and structures were reframed for inclusion, what knowledge was unearthed, what issues of power and privilege eradicated in the process. In addition, the process of diversity means constant revaluations of the questions, which are answered and used again as a new equation to be recalculated again.

Some may ask, "...isn’t this Social Justice?” No, they are not the same. One of the toughest admissions to make is that there are a large number of people of color, folks with disabilities, and other oppressed populations who feel Social Justice omits them from the picture. I am a big fan of Social Justice, it has provided some wonderful tools that I think are great for many situations. But I also lose out on my Latinidad as an asset, my culture is left at the door for “common good,” which can mean a group-think mentality. Social Justice tools and techniques can work alongside the tools of “diversity,” they are schools of thought to seen as cooperative and not competitive.

I may be off here. But, I hope future events can take into account the entire scope and range of the “D” word. It hurts when people walk with you, but still don’t get you. Again, I’m not a fan of the word. I use it alongside “equity,” “inclusion” “multiculturalism” interchangeably. I’m not championing the word, but advocating for a more comprehensive terminology that does not leave me as a checkbox, but a complete change agent and contributor to the new.

Supplement: A corny exhibition of "Diversity" as the curse word...  highlighting my beef with its assumed definition.


Nakia Bell said...

This posting is a breath of fresh air and something that a lot of minorities that do diversity work struggle with. I do not work in diversity per se, and my comment is more related to why diversity = numbers. I take a page from the affirmative action initiatives of the 1960’s. The goal was to increase the number of minorities in the workplace, not to create and sustain institutional structures that will allow these groups to be successful. Now, affirmative action is a dirty word because people equate it with reverse discrimination. And, we (this country) can only agree from one ramification of affirmative action, diversity is in numbers. It is not until we look at breaking down the institutional structures that shut certain people that we will truly have diversity. Again, I am glad for this posting and that you shared your experience.

Maegan la Mala said...

Call me a hater, pero looking at the panel, I could have predicted almost word for word what would be said. I think it's why I hate the word diversity so much. Representation is not enough, not to mention the failure of the mainstream use of that word to see diversity within their neatly carved out racial definitions. Diversity is less important to me than self-determination, empowerment and building healing community spaces.

Really goos post and really important as the push for diversity across new media continues.

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