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Feb 13, 2014 | Insights

Diversity: Sitting in the Fire

The Downside of Diversity?

There seems to be much consternation, replete with hand-wringing and soul searching, about the research findings from the study “Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” authored by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam.

Certainly, the study finds that diversity can be beneficial in some ways, including inspiring creativity and producing better, faster problem solving. However, even the author is concerned that the primary finding of his research suggests that in communities where diversity is greatest, altruism, community engagement, cooperation and social solidarity are lessened.

As someone who has worked to increase diversity for 2 decades, I say let’s not be naïve about Putnam’s findings, or worse, use them as an excuse to simply “hunker down” and retreat from the community of people committed to this work.

Cultural Shift

Instead, let’s recognize that we are at the crossroads of a cultural shift. The world is vastly different than it was 50 years ago, and I guarantee it will be different 50 years from now. How that future is defined depends on our willingness to “sit in the fire” of doubt, missteps and discomfort today, and begin to figure out how to build the kind of world we want.

This is complex stuff and, as humans, we would prefer a quick and easy route to achieve the ends we desire. In a world in which two clicks of a computer mouse provide complete information on countless subjects, we want to check off tasks accomplished on our perpetual to-do lists.

The work of diversity and inclusion, however, is not linear – with a beginning and end on a checklist. It is instead the constant process of trying to work together to get it right. Each new level of insight can result in growth and new experiences.

Yes, this type of work is uncomfortable and yes, the territory may be unfamiliar. The question is: Are we willing to live with that discomfort for a time in order to achieve healthy, whole communities – with parity for all?

A Model to Consider

Since 1990, the Diversity & Inclusion Initiative has worked with nearly 100 nonprofits on issues of diversity and inclusion. External evaluations have shown that in becoming more diverse, these organizations have become more effective in meeting their missions and serving their constituents.

The program was initiated by a group of Greater Boston foundations in 1990 concerned that the area’s charitable organizations no longer reflected the constituents served. Now a program of TSNE, we have learned together with our organizational partners that this work is arduous and challenging.

For an institution or community to become diverse and inclusive, there has to be a shift in mindset – from being motivated by missionary zeal to being mission driven. (Stakeholders are well-informed and articulate about their needs when asked.)

We’ve learned that once this shift in thinking has taken place within an organization, we next need to shift the organizational culture. This broadens the conversations about policy and program development and the delivery of services. Real factors such as racism, power and class amplify the challenges.

It is no surprise that the initial reaction by some within our partner organizations can be to “hunker down,” to retreat once there is a glimpse of how difficult it is to redefine ourselves after centuries of dominant culture thinking and action. Working through this is no easy task, we have learned with and from our partners, but the rewards are worth it.

Walking the Talk

How does this translate to communities and society as a whole? Community leaders, who say that they are capable of thinking outside the box and being creative, must avoid buckling and throwing in the towel when faced with the actual analysis and reality of what is required to walk the talk. As is true for nonprofit organizations that have successfully worked toward more inclusivity and diversity, communities need leaders with an unflinching commitment to convey the benefits of organizational diversity to the collective vision and values of the group.

Communities also need a person and a group of individuals that are clearly designated to create an action plan and timelines to address the challenge of becoming more inclusive, and to lead the charge to align a community’s diversity planning with its strategic planning. Without this step, the work of diversity will languish without proper planning and resources to make it a reality. And certainly, through the Diversity & Inclusion Initiative we have learned that evaluation of the progress made at regular intervals and a periodic reassessment of priorities is needed.

Arnold Mindell, Ph.D. published Sitting in the Fire – Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity, Lao Tse Press in 1995. While still ahead of its time, he describes how we as a society can work through the very scenario Professor Putnam’s research reveals. We are not at the end of some hopeless journey poised on the precipice of failure. That’s the easy assessment – and the easy way out. Instead, we are at a place where we have the opportunity to hunker down, not to throw in the towel, but to figure out this critical work for our collective future.

We know the kind of world we want, and we know that one person or one group cannot achieve that vision alone. So let’s sit in the fire together and transform our communities for ourselves and the generations to come.