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Drawing on the Widest Pool of Talent and Generosity: Diversity vs. Inclusion
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Contributed by Nan Hawthorne
I remember my mother once telling me about a conversation she had with her family’s gardener when she was a teen in the early 1940s. My mother, who is white, told the man, who was black, that she believed in “tolerance.” He corrected her firmly, saying, “We don’t want to be tolerated. We want to be equal.”
This story comes to me whenever I think about the use of the word “diversity” in terms of human resources, whether paid or volunteer. To me it feels like the word “tolerance.” It feels unnatural, artificial, and imposed on what ought to be freely accessible to all. Like “equal” inclusion is that freer, more natural word.
Let me explain. In general the value that is applied to the concept of diversity is a laudable desire to have as many different working styles and perspectives as a volunteer program, for instance, can have. The idea is that problem solving is better and more easily done if everyone involved does not have the same way of doing things, in this case solving those problems. The assumption generally made is that people who are significantly different from each other in some way will have those different perspectives and work styles: men, women, younger, older, from different ethnic a racial groups, and so forth.
That is a pretty big assumption just on the face of it. I have been told by a black friend that class had more to do with how she approached challenges in her life than being black did. She had more in common, she told me, with white middle class people than she did with poorer black people. The assumption is a common one held by the “default” group, in this case, as managers of volunteer resources, primarily middle class, white, English speaking women. To us every other category of person is “diversity.”
We know we are expected to have diverse programs. We are urged by our local United Way or other such program and our own administrators to “get more people of color in here.” Sometimes we have to, if our client base expects it. One of my most challenging recruits was a transsexual who could take a blind transsexual grocery shopping without freaking out.
But I contend this is as patronizing and artificial as my mother’s declaration of “tolerance” for the black gardener. We seek or are expected to seek people from different cultures and so forth for what seems to me mostly window dressing. No one ever says, “You know, if we got more people of the Jewish faith in here, I bet we would find all sorts of new solutions to our problems!”
I am reminded of a cartoon I saw once of a woman with one of those music hall hooks hiding behind a building labeled “volunteer program” as a woman of color is approaching. At trainings people ask “how do we get more X volunteers?” The best answer is “ask them,” but that is not the magic wand the trainees are looking for.
So let’s leave “tolerance” and “diversity” behind and look instead at “equality” and “inclusion.” Like “equality,” inclusion is all about people making their own choices freely and not just being allowed to do something. Inclusion is the concept that you create an environment that by its nature is open and accessible to all. Instead of creating artificial expectations and demands, with inclusion the environment lacks barriers by default. When something like a volunteer resources program “lacks barriers” people who want to be there are there.
How do you get inclusion? Instead of focusing on how to get “them” to help “you,” step back and look at your program, your policies, your work environment, your publications, and ask yourself, “What barriers do we have to anyone who wants to be part of what we do?” You will need to be honest with yourself and willing to think like someone you are not. You have to broaden your sense of who “everybody” is... are you including people of different faiths or lack of one? Are you thinking in terms of different types of families? Do you consider someone with a disability more than just an obstacle you have to overcome or avoid? Do you see people who are gay or lesbian as having the same potential to offer different problem solving perspectives as someone of color? You might be surprised at just how many barriers there are. And you thought you were such a tolerant person!
One of the most dangerous things you can do when trying to have a more inclusive volunteer program is to think you know what people want and don’t want, can do or can’t do. As a blind person myself, I know I am one big collection of assumptions when it comes to other people. They assume a lot about what I can and cannot do, what my expectations will be of them, how far I can be depended on, and how responsible I would be. This is based on a truth about me, that I don’t see well, but it takes the other person’s bias to make this many false assumptions.
Take this opportunity to go over to VOLUNTEER-ISSUES and share with others how you see diversity vs. inclusion and how you might try to shift the focus to the latter. Feel free to use the list to brainstorm ideas on how you can look at your program and see it from others’ perspectives to find the barriers you cannot find alone.
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