Developing Diversity: Part 1 – Prioritizing

Posted by on December 13, 2013

Sometimes, diversity just happens.  That’s wonderful!  But what if it doesn’t?  This series of blog posts is about how leaders can choose to move ahead in developing diversity when it doesn’t arrive of its own accord.

I’ll be opening discussions on six different topics, all of which I’ve shoehorned into words that start with the letter P. 🙂 But I really do intend to start a conversation.  I don’t have all the answers.  If I thought I did, you could safely disregard anything I might say about diversity, dismissing me as hopefully myopic. On to today’s topic!

tl;dr summary: You’re probably not going to develop diversity unless you make a conscious decision and bring some others along. Various people will complain in different ways, but it’s still a good idea and making a commitment to it greatly increases your chances of success.

Prioritizing Diversity

There’s only so much you can do alone.  If you really want your church or organization to embrace diversity, you’re going to need to bring some people along.  It might seem strange, and there are a few pitfalls (see below), but this really is a helpful way to go.

Until a group of leaders have agreed that diversity is both 1) a positive goal and 2) something that’s worth putting some time and effort into (a priority), it’ll probably be slow going.

Here are some points of resistance that I’ve run into before:

Objection 1: This is just political correctness

This objection is usually followed by a speech about how it would be better to be “color blind” or “let everyone succeed on his/her own merits.”)  This may or may not be a screen for racism.  It can often simply reflect that someone has taken in part of our national lore without examination.

The truth is, the language we choose to use is important.  It can make people feel welcomed and valued or it can make them feel excluded.

“Political correctness” suggests that choice of language is just window dressing.  When done well, awareness of language can remove obstacles.  While the ministry my church in West Sacramento did was technically “Hispanic ministry” because it was based on the Spanish language, the participants preferred to use the term “Latino/a.”  We could argue that it shouldn’t matter and that Hispanic is better because Latino includes Brazil and we’re not doing anything in Portuguese.  What we’d end up with is a ministry with the right technical name and nobody in it.

I watched the chilling effect of a comment in a prayer meeting that included a homeless man.  The leader thanked God that we all have homes to go to.  When – to his credit – he realized that didn’t apply to everyone, he changed it to “or no home.”  I don’t blame the guy.  It was a mistake, and it’s hard to know what to do right there.  But the homeless man didn’t return to the meeting again.  Language and awareness of its effects on those present mattered.

Clearly mistakes will be made, and we’ll talk about that in the final part (“protecting diversity”), but if we’ve all agreed to make an effort, then someone will be able to reach out to the person who has been inadvertently excluded and rebuild the bridge.  You are a valued member of our community.  “How are you doing?”  And maybe later, “That comment was a goof up to be sure.  I just want you to know that the fact that you were at the prayer meeting reminded me of something important.  Not everyone has a home, and I can get really complacent and comfortable – even in my prayer life.  What happened back there reminded me of the need to pray for those who don’t have a home to go to.”

Language, images used, jokes told, assumptions about political positions held, the monetary cost of participating in the community, cultural recognition, scheduling of events, provision of childcare and transportation, efforts to include those different from those already in the group, and value placed on diversity don’t reduce to “political correctness,” they can really make the difference between whether someone is able to feel like a real part of your congregation or organization.

Objection 2: This is Tokenism

Sometimes resistance comes not from those looking for a more authentic approach to diversity.

In my last year of seminary, I was asked to be in a publicity video where I would be able to explain what I appreciated about my seminary education.  When I called to ask when my filming appointment would be, they told me that when they were filming another student, they go another white male so they didn’t need me.  I’ve spoken with colleagues of color who have expressed their exasperation at being asked to be on yet another committee and being in five pictures in a brochure for an event that includes hundreds.

If the decision to develop diversity is only about deciding to appear diverse or if the desire is for diversity in order to achieve another goal, it won’t work.  In that case, it really is tokenism.  Here are two examples to help you recognize it when you see it.:

“Multiculturalism is really popular right now so more people will come to your event if we show some racial-ethnic people in the publicity materials.”  Here, people are being functionalized to achieve some other goal.  The goal isn’t to have a richer, fuller community.  It’s to be more “successful” by some other measure.

Here’s a more subtle one.  “We need some young families around here so we can get some new leaders in our church.”  Again, the real goal expressed by this statement isn’t to have an intergenerational community that blesses young and old alike.  The real goal is to pass on the jobs in an organization we’d like to perpetuate.  Usually people don’t understand that when they say it.

Take the First Step

People are going to say those things.  It doesn’t seem natural to “develop” diversity.  But countless studies have shown that people are much more likely to achieve a goal if they make a conscious decision, write it down, and make some kind of formal commitment to it – whether that’s a motion made at a church board meeting or a decision made over coffee at a small group meeting.

Make the decision.  Let people talk about political correctness and tokenism if they will.  At least they’re talking about it.  It’s harder to shut your eyes again after someone has forced you to look around.

Next time, I’ll suggest some tools for Preparing for diversity.

Join the Conversation

What do you think?  What have you experienced when making decisions about diversity?  How have you seen a lack of decision/commitment cause problems? Lave a comment!


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