Why representation matters

24 Jan

Recently on Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and author of the book God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage. At the beginning of the interview, Terry asks Bishop Robinson about the importance of having an openly gay person in the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops (Robinson was the first; the Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool followed Robinson as the first openly gay female bishop). Bishop Robinson responds that as the Episcopal Church, like all other faiths, finds itself grappling with questions of sexuality, it’s “terribly important” to have an openly gay voice in the House of Bishops, so that church can strive to be “relevant to the times and to the culture”  (http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/).

I found this answer, while pragmatic, to fall a little short.

And it’s a typical answer. I hear variations on this theme in the organizations with whom I work: it’s important to have diversity in our leadership because, after all, diversity is a fact of our times.

But so is bigotry. So is it important to have bigots in leadership to be culturally and temporally “relevant”? I should hope not.

What this ambiguity of logic and response regarding “why diversity” indicates to me is that we’re not always clear on why, exactly, diversity matters. The unspoken reasons why we need diversity in leadership include:

  • To be politically correct
  • To look good
  • To be able to say, “We’re not racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-Semitic/classist/otherwise discriminatory! Look, we have one!”

These are not very satisfying reasons, either.

And I fear that all too often an unclear rationale for diversity in leadership results in expectations of representation on the minority: the one gay bishop is expected do all speaking for LGBQQ* and same-sex couple rights, and everyone else can turn the sexuality-equity part of their brains off, because that one bishop has it covered. (Plus, bonus! The House of Bishops gets points for being inclusive!)

To create a culture of equity in which everyone is a steward, the answer to “why diversity?” must be pragmatic, focusing on the metaphorical and very real bottom line. Diversity must fundamentally and vitally benefit organizations’ process and outcomes. Otherwise, it’s not just window dressing; it’s a distraction from the mission. So charity, guilt and fear, while real human motivators, aren’t sustainable or valid reasons to put people in leadership.

So why diversity? Diversity within an organization that is run by and serves people (i.e. most organizations) helps that organization do its work better by shifting the thinking and action from what what’s best for them (whether “they” are the consumer, the student or the congregant), to what’s best for us. It means remembering who we serve: not a two-dimensional demographic or a stereotype. Diversity helps us to be mindful, to be present, to be creative and to be inclusive. Because even when we think “there’s no diversity,” there is. And therein lies the danger: we give ourselves permission to think and act narrowly when we presume everyone is the same. So why diversity? Because it helps groups function more equitably, inclusively and, therefore, more equitably.

* LGBQQ refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and questioning identities. I’m referring specifically to sexuality, here, although gender identity is often also thrown into the mix–sometimes intentionally and sometimes because people conflate gender and sexuality.

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