Dr. Michael Eric Dyson: Rethinking Diversity

The Diversity and Inclusion Initiative (DII) kicked-off its Conversations with …, a lecture series exploring issues of diversity and inclusion, with a June 17, 2009, address by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, renowned Georgetown University professor, CNN pundit, a contributing editor at Time magazine and author of 17 books. The inaugural lecture was funded in part by an Out of the Blue grant from The Boston Foundation. 

The Diversity and Inclusion Initiative (DII) kicked-off its Conversations with …, a lecture series exploring issues of diversity and inclusion, with a June 17, 2009, address by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, renowned Georgetown University professor, CNN pundit, a contributing editor at Time magazine and author of 17 books. The inaugural lecture was funded in part by an Out of the Blue grant from The Boston Foundation. 

Creating Institutional Will

According to Dr. Dyson, positive and effective diversity and inclusion within organizations relies on institutional will. And institutional will is dependent upon an individual’s ability and willingness to speak up in the name of change.

Hearing Voices

In his remarks, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson encouraged us to hear the voices of all, to include perspectives that differ and to acknowledge the complexities of our commitment to diversity and inclusion. He urged us to have the courage to step out of our realm of comfort.

The recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates has handed us an extraordinary opportunity to examine the dualities of race and gender, class and power and universality and privilege. If we embrace this incident courageously [and others that will emerge] and work our way through its lessons, then we might prove to Attorney General Eric Holder and more importantly, to ourselves that we have the will to change.

Dr. Dyson discussed the principles of institutional change by using a metaphor. According to the pundit, organizational machinery transmits a vision. He emphasized that sometimes you need to take apart the machinery in order to change the vision being projected, but not destroy the foundation. Altering the machinery takes the form of individuals stepping up and being willing to tackle diversity and inclusion in a meaningful way.

“If we are going to deal with diversity and inclusion… we must grow uncomfortable with the prejudices that we have,” Dr. Dyson explained, “and allow, tolerate and encourage the reexamination of those principles as they are applied; not simply to the broader world, but even to our own group.”  

Discussing Race: Courage and Communication     

Dr. Dyson emphasized the importance of courage to speak up in organizations as a means for challenging and unmasking dominant culture values that are largely invisible. “What we must see first is the illusion of living in a post-racial society...,” he told the audience. 

He also cautioned that courage to speak up also requires preparation to deal with opposition from those who do not value organizational diversity as highly. Or those who believe that once diversity is “achieved” the nonprofit will operate pretty much as it always has.

In his book, Can You Hear Me Now, Dr. Dyson states, “Race is not a word, is not a card, is not a condition. Race and racism are not static forces. They mutate, grow, transform and are redefined in complex ways.” Issues of diversity and inclusion evolve and change within any organization just as they do within the larger society. In order for change to occur, stakeholders must be willing to step outside the realm of comfort and reexamine the principles that govern the way in which their organization functions.  

Creating Safe Places

Early in any process to increase diversity and inclusion, nonprofit organizations need to develop a clear strategy to create safe spaces. This means shifting the environment within the workplace so employees feel safe opening up and discussing their perspectives. This also means providing the space for employees to listen to others who have differing experiences and points of view. Dr. Dyson acknowledged that getting the conversation started can be challenging. However, we have no choice if we are serious about creating change.  

Examining Universal Principles and their Application

In his lecture, Dr. Dyson also cautioned that despite the belief that there are universal principles by which all people adhere, there is considerable inequality in the way universality is currently upheld. “Universality is always particular in its application,” he stated, “and therefore is not necessarily on par with the basic principle.”

There was much consternation about how some poor people on the Gulf Coast spent their $2,000 relief checks given to them after Hurricane Katrina. Yet when the notorious AIG was exposed for its role in the destruction of the U.S. economy, the company received additional money totaling billions of dollars the help the company survive. On the one hand poor people had been victimized by forces of nature and institutional poverty while on the other hand the executives at AIG victimized the nation through greed and were rewarded for it.

To further explain this point, Dr. Dyson spoke of the rate of incarceration for poor black men and rural whites for drug possession. He told of a recent incident in which he had dinner in a private area of an upscale restaurant in downtown Manhattan. During dinner, a wealthy, white diner began to smoke marijuana, “this in a restaurant where you couldn’t even smoke a cigarette upstairs.”

If we are to increase diversity and move toward full inclusion, we need to be mindful of the fact that race, class, sexual orientation, gender and other characteristics over which we have no control carry bias. And we need to constantly push ourselves and colleagues to look beyond these characteristics to judge people on their performance and actions.

What Can Be…

Michael Dr. Dyson’s final remarks concluded with an inspirational push towards a future in which diversity is accepted. He profoundly stated, “…We must hear the voices of Palestinians and Israelis. We must hear the voices of Harlem, and we must hear the voices of the suburbia America. We must hear the voices of those who have been closed away. We must not assume a sighted or hearing universe.

“We must develop capacities for other languages and opportunities and gifts so that all of us will be made better by the strength of those who have been made most vulnerable. Then the society in which we live will look more like the beautiful diversity of the great universe that I believe God created for all of us to inherit.”

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