Where do we start?

11 Oct

A parent once asked, “‘Diversity’ encompasses so much. Where do we start?”

Great question.

This parent was pointing out that “diversity” refers to differences in many aspects of identity: age, class, ethnicity, family, gender, geography, learning ability, physical ability, race, sex, sexuality, size, socioeconomic status…

What these identifiers have in common is their impact on the social experiences–including relationships, status and access to resources–not just of individuals but of whole groups of people. It turns out that our experiences of our own identities is both unique… and shared.

And because diversity matters (it shapes our ability to succeed, to connect with others and very simply to thrive), another way to read this parent’s question is: Which diversities should we prioritize? Which diversities matter most?

Where do we start?

I use three lenses to identify which diversities organizations should be talking about:

  • normative identity development
  • context
  • organizational mission

On normative identity development:

In infancy, we begin sorting people: we judge “attractiveness” (based on facial symmetry), and notice phenotypic racial and sex differences. As toddlers, we notice biases about those differences, expressed through other people’s behavior (what we shouldn’t talk about, whom we should avoid). Much of this information gathering is done implicitly, without intentional conversations to help us discern how we want to act towards others who appear like, or unlike, us. So when talking about diversity, we need to talk about the differences we notice: chief among these are race, sex, size and visible physical ability.

On context:

Diversity is a social phenomenon, which is to say, there’s no diversity if it’s just me by myself. So when considering which diversities are important to address, we always need to consider context. Which diversities matter here? This is not to say that if you have an organization of all women or a school of all white children, you don’t need to talk about sex or race, respectively. In fact, you probably need to address the homogeneity of your community. Even if you don’t want to diversify, understanding how dominant or even exclusive identities shape your culture will help cultivate everyone’s ability to thrive. So when I suggest considering context, I mean: what are the diversities of the organization? what are the biases and inequities, and how are different identities advantaged and disadvantaged? what are the identity taboos (the identities we don’t ask and don’t tell about)? which individuals and groups tend to thrive–and which don’t?

On organizational mission:

I like to start with how diversity is mission-critical. This helps to shape a  relevant, useful conversation and generates buy-in (because it’s not diversity as an add-on but diversity as a means to enact our shared purpose and enhance the outcomes). With an understanding of how diversity serves the mission, then we can consider which diversities are mission-critical. Perhaps it’s thought diversity, which invites the need for social diversity (as the shortcut cue that so often activates our capacity for more self-aware, divergent and creative thinking and action). Articulating the institutional hierarchy of diversities often leads to the recognition of the organization’s diversity limit: an aspect of difference or an identity group that the group doesn’t actively include–and, although they may not actually say it, they don’t really intend to. An example in schools is students with severe learning disabilities. Most schools have limits to the spectrum of learning differences they can support, and they’ll refer a student who falls outside that spectrum to a school that’s a better fit. Another common diversity limit is set around ideology: an organization may make clear that neo-Nazis or Creationists are not welcome because their beliefs conflict with core values or functions of the groups. That’s what I mean by a diversity limit. It’s not necessarily a consequence of apathy, ignorance or even hate; it’s the inevitable point when an organization needs to choose between cultivating its own identity, culture and the folks within its spectrum, and nurturing an outlier.

By this time, you’ve figured out that I don’t have a pat answer for where we start. Only that we need to start with the recognition that not all diversities are equal.

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