On diversity

9 Mar

A quick post today, inspired by a student, who asked me three questions about diversity that were helpful to me as a way to get my day started:

What does diversity mean to you? 

While “diversity” can refer to any differences within a group, social diversity refers to differences in those aspects of identity that matter because at a group level, they impact people’s experiences, status, access to resources and opportunities, and other privileges and disadvantages within their communities. Contrary to some assumptions, diversity includes majority and normative groups (without whom there would be no perceived or actual “others.”) So while liking sneakers versus sandals can be an aspect of diversity in the broadest sense, a social justice perspective invites the question: does liking sandals versus sneakers impact the experiences, status, access to resources and opportunities and other privileges and disadvantages of whole group of people in a community? In some communities, it may very well matter; in others, not. And while different aspects of identity may be more or less relevant from one community to the next, there are some aspects of identity that seem to persistently matter across communities: age, sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, physical abilities, mental abilities… to name a few.

Why is it important to maintain a diverse student body? 

Diversity is vital in schools and actually any community because diversity makes everyone smarter. How so? Homogeneous communities are susceptible to a fixed mindset, including assumptions that we’re all on the same page and share the same values, perspectives and baselines. Communities that are diverse and in which people perceive diversity are more likely to activate a growth mindset, including the ability to notice one’s own perspective and consider others, and to think in a complex integrative way (i.e. to recognize shades of gray and weigh them). Beyond just diversity, it’s important to cultivate enough diversity (as opposed to a bare minimum) to free each person and group from the experience or expectation of tokenism and stereotype threat: the need to represent a whole group of people. Essentially, healthy, substantive diversity in a student body creates the conditions for everyone and every group to thrive and do their best learning.

How can a school pursue a more varied curriculum and student body in the future? 

Cultivating cultural competency and becoming more inclusive in what you’re teaching now and whom you’re teaching is where a school needs to start its intentional growth. Rather than just trying to bring more canaries into the coal mine, we need to focus simultaneously on changing the conditions in the coal mine: making it a place where everyone—including the miners—can thrive. When you cultivate the understandings, habits and skills of cultural competency, you can teach any curriculum more inclusively (that doesn’t mean politically correctly: that means you can teach the material to its fullest in a way that empowers more students to learn it more impactfully), and in doing so, you will be able to draw a student body that is increasingly varied, in a variety of ways. Increasing diversity always requires consideration of what you’re already doing because, as the saying goes, all systems are perfectly designed to achieve the results they get. For a school, this means bringing a more culturally competent awareness and skillset to curriculum and other program design, admissions, hiring, professional growth, and parent/guardian education.
** Thanks to DH for the questions.

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