Developing Movement Strength Through Diversity

“Let me give you a word on the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all absorbing, and for the time being putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is not struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

~ Frederick Douglass.  Letter to an abolitionist associate, 1849

Diversity of Background Provides Needed Perspective and Energy

When people embark on an organizational journey, they bring with them the social inequalities they were brought up with. No one is immune to the biases inherent in their upbringing and culture. American society divides us into status groups and attaches different values to each. Typically, white people rank higher than people of color, and the deeper the color, the lower the rank. Men have a higher rank than women, youth is valued over age, physically and mentally challenged people are marginalized, and Christians rank above other religious groups. Non-heterosexuals are seen as flawed, and poor people are treated as lesser no matter how hard they work, while people of means are admired and catered to,. Though these generalizations do not always hold, in most cases they are the norm. This is a shocking realization to confront, but it is essential to do so. These different valuations show up as personal prejudices and are woven into the fabric of our culture and organizations, as power differentials and as ways we experience and understand the world.

Organizations typically work on one or two problem areas, and understandably want to remain focused on their goals and not worry about other issues or the relationships between people in the group. However, people don’t do their best when their work is discounted due to the misconceptions of others. When different backgrounds and perspectives are overlooked, an organization's effectiveness suffers. As a result, it is not as strong as it might be, less able to deal creatively with problems and less likely to succeed.

Diversity is a key factor in producing high quality work as a team. Along with differences come a variety of perspectives, which give a richer base for understanding situations and coming up with successful solutions. At the root of many institutional problems in Western culture is our history that decisions are made by a homogeneous group of middle- and upper-class white men. Today’s world is far too complex to be negotiated by a homogeneous group, no matter how many credentials they posses. If our goal is a society that is just and that maximizes human potential, it is also necessary to reject the oppressive programming that ranks some groups of people higher than others.

Build Diversity Into Your Organization from the Start

Take care in developing the group that will form the core of a new organization: making contact with people beyond your own circle and being willing to spend sufficient time in the development stage can pay off in the long run. Because our culture restricts our vision, it is important to actively reach out to the community to acquire diverse opinions and perspectives. Strive to create dialogue around how the goals of the organization will change as it is enriched by a variety of people bringing new opinions to the table. Expect resistance inside yourself to this process. When we passionately wish to begin a project, we are likely to be attached to our own vision of the goals, our methods and the contribution we make. This can make it hard to open up the process and collaborate, but doing this can lead to better responses to complex issues.

If Your Organization Already Exists, Conduct a Diversity Assessment

A diversity assessment can help you to identify areas where change is needed, and to create a timeline and benchmarks against which to evaluate progress. It can be conducted at any time, but is especially relevant when your organization enages in strategic planning.

The assessment includes gathering demographic data about people who participate in the group’s work at different levels: board, staff, volunteers, members and others. Gender, racial and ethnic identity are basic data used in most assessments, though your group may also want to consider age, religion, income level, sexual orientation and ability.

In addition to collecting demographic information, you may wish to ask:

  • What kind of recruitment or outreach is done? Where and to whom?
  • What do your organization's descriptive materials say about who you are in terms of diversity?
  • How are new people in different parts of the organization oriented? What assumptions do you make about what new people need to know?
  • How do people find out what is going on, formally and informally?
  • What are the expectations and experiences of the different people involved?
  • What do outsiders think of the organization, particularly people from groups that are not represented in it?

You can gather responses through questionnaires, focus groups, individual interviews or a combination of methods. Interviews and focus groups work best if conducted by someone who is not part of the organization. An outsider is less likely to have an axe to grind and more likely to notice what is not said as well as what is.

Analyzing the responses is as important as asking the questions. To build trust in the process, don’t have existing organizational leaders perform the analysis. Get an outside guide or create a committee that is truly representative. Remember that this is sensitive information and will carry an emotional charge. Delving into diversity is exploring the shadow side of Western culture and of activist culture. Expect people to get uncomfortable and sensitive at times. The credibility of the guide, be this a person or committee, may be crucial to the outcome of the analysis.
Reporting back to the people who participated is also very important. This allows the process of change within the organization to begin, and demonstrates that the leadership takes the assessment process seriously.

Agree to be Honest without Calling Each Other Names

Many organizations have slowed down their progress on diversity by creating a culture in which name-calling is tolerated. Using terms such as “racist,” “sexist” and “anti-Semitic,” even when accurate, insults people without addressing the undlerlying problems. Of course people in the group are likely to be racist or sexist - the culture has conditioned us to be that way.

To further complicate matters, most people who have experienced oppression have internalized the messages, and name-calling is one way to avoid dealing with low self-esteem. There can be a feeling of righteous satisfaction - however fleeting - when we’ve labeled someone else with an attitude that we also share inside.

Create Identity Groups to Support Your Group’s Work on Diversity

Bringing together groups of people who share the same identity can give people a chance to compare notes with others, to explore their emotions, and to think about how to bring about change. An identify group can also provide a safer place in which to deal with problems between people in the group.
Identity groups should be flexible enough to recognize that each individual represents a complex set of identities. An organization which acknowledges the variety of “oppression/liberation issues” will learn valuable lessons.

Healthy identity groups are places where people can grow and recognize their strengths and weaknesses. They are not for complaining or blaming, which can become an exercise in powerlessness. Organizations should consider allocating the resources needed for identity groups, such as time, readings, and access to training or work with a consultant.

Instead of Feeling Overwhelmed, Try Collaboration

Collaboration can lead to connectedness and mutual support between organizations working on different issues, or on similar issues from different angles. Collaboration can strengthen the work of each group and help to create a more just and caring world. For example, the cause of anti-racism could be furthered by collaborative neighborhood projects involving churches with different racial identities, or by the active support of a white educational advocacy group working with a Latino parents group in their children’s school. The white groups in these examples can help these efforts succeed by:

  • Making a serious effort to educate themselves about the worldview and conditions of members of the other groups.
  • Learning  about the dynamics of institutionalized racism.
  • Remembering to ask what form of support would be most helpful.
  • Refraining from telling the other groups what to do.

If they do not do these things, the collaboration is likely to be experienced as another example of white paternalism. Similarly, the members of a predominantly white organization can make it much more likely that their group will successfully change into a multiracial organization by taking responsibility for understanding the realities of other groups, as well as by acknowledging the ways in which they themselves have been affected by racism.

Don’t Expect Overnight Transformation

Most of the oppressions we experience have taken hundreds, or even thousands, of years to root themselves, so it may take more than a few months to overcome them. Building trust takes time and involves risk on everyone’s part, especially when old power relationships have to be rearranged and new behaviors learned. Patience and perseverance is required. Mistakes will be made on all sides; rather than defending them, try to acknowledge them, apologize to those whom they have affected, and figure out together how to do better in the future. Diversity is the practice of valuing the unique strengths and perspectives that people bring from their backgrounds. Like the other goals our organizations work towards, it is worth the struggle.

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