Elements of Diversity: How Change Agents, Activists, Advocates, and Other Do-Gooders Seem to Not Get It Right After 40 Years of Trying

by Guest Contributor Hugo Najera, originally published at AmericanPupusa


I am disappointed in the still inconsistent and unfinished definition of the “D” word applied by mainstream spaces and do-gooder change agents. The word is a bad choice to describe the ideal we seek, and the most incomplete to describe the cure my social anger. “Diversity” has been tainted before I got a chance to play for the team, it’s the jersey we wear on the court, and few in the team know this.

This problem came to light when I attended “New Models in Media and Activism” sponsored by Campus Progress. The event was a panel discussion with Amanda Terkel – Senior politics reporter for The Huffington Post, Amy Austin – Publisher for Washington City Paper, Latoya Peterson – Editor of Racialicious.com, and Melinda Wittstock – Founder, CEO, and Bureau Chief of Capitol News Connection about the intersection of women, activism, and social media. The 80+ attendees comprised of about 90% 20-something white females, a sprinkle of Black females, drips of white males, and one Latino Albino (guess). The panel provided good insight, suggestions, and anecdotes on their experiences and contexts, showing a spectrum of voices from Print, Web 1.0, 1.5 to 2.0 media. The event also provided examples of the ineptitude of many change agents to grasp what diversity means in real-world situations. One panelist painfully tried to keep up with the others by saying things like “Well, that’s why women are better at getting along because we communicate better than men, which is why diversity is important” and other lovely words of wisdom. Throughout the event, audience members and moderators mostly framed issues of diversity in simple terms like getting more African Americans and women in the media. A white male student from American University correlated diversity troubles at his school with what was happening in the media, as Black candidates who run for student government president never win, asking “how can we combat that so we can be more diverse?”

Such comments assume that diversity is measured only by the number of Blacks, women, and Latinos in the room, without considering the structural reframing, process, and competencies that can make the term usable. “Diversity” as shorthand for a tally of physical bodies and archetypes is one of the major issues this term faces for validity and understanding. This incomplete definition makes whites feel apart and not responsible, targeted groups into tokens who feel responsible for carrying the burden in get-togethers, and ultimately diminishing collective knowledge. And for those who accompany the word with action, process, and competency, it annoys us when others in the choir don’t sing with the entire range of notes true diversity asks for.

Another saddening consequence is the neglect of the knowledge, processes, outcomes, and techniques diversity can offer for not just the eradication of inequity, but the addition of new tools of success and growth for organizations, people, and social institutions. There is an untapped resource here where folks can learn and utilize these beautiful gems of cognitive, psychological, leadership, and interpersonal skills. Latinidad, code-switching, double-consciousness, appropriation, Queer theory, communalism, liberation education, etc. can be used for science, math, engineering, business, politics, and health as tools to understand and navigate our society. You should’ve seen the look on people’s faces when I walked into dean’s offices, department meetings, and faculty task forces as they couldn’t figure out why I was sitting there next them… clueless Ph.D. holders.

The worst crime of limiting diversity to stockpiling identities is that it leaves black, white, whomever, oblivious and shackled from taking any social action. I have participated in too many dialogue sessions, hate crime debriefings, class discussions, and lunchroom chit chat where targeted groups have vent sessions, whites stay quiet, and everyone feels good for being in conversation, yet empty that nothing has been done. Everything returns to the status quo of disproportionate favoritism, neglect, anger, and struggle. Why is it that these feelings and situations do not convert well into action? Why do we like the notion of diversity so much, yet we still struggle in using it in the classroom? Why does a room full of positive change agents ask the question “What can I do?” The reason is because action steps, knowledge, competencies, and processes have been severed, or never included, in “diversity.”

In tribute to Strunk and White, I present some dimensions of diversity that should be in everyone’s composition. I would go so far as to say that “Diversity” is completely ineffective without these concepts, which are connected to action. They are abstract in nature because these are three sections that are to be designed differently for each situation.
    1. Diversity is content knowledge and text: as stated earlier, there is a wealth of information, lessons, techniques, and vocabulary that diversity has unearthed and exposed for all people to draw from. Much of my own Latinidad was informed by W.E.B. DuBois’s introduction of double-consciousness to American culture. Gloria Anzaldua’s notion of borders can help higher education look at how they frame “global” “intercultural” and “internationals” as it has informed me with understanding the intra-group dynamics between Latinos who come to school as International Students, and those who are U.S. domestic.

    2. Diversity provides a set of tools: When I first designed a Latino Leadership course for the University of Maryland, I introduced leadership halfway through the semester, not until we laid out a vocabulary of what Latinidad is in relation to social consciousness, followed by a survey of social issues affecting Latinos. Reappropriaton, code-switching, critical thinking, inclusion, dealing with difference, combating oppression, dialogue, and the third-eye feeds directly into Leadership as a tool for social change, a hybrid, not an addendum to be added afterward. Resulting models would inherently have these components within their DNA. Early Hip Hop is another example of a set of tools designed by a certain few, carrying on the ability to be held and utilized by many outside.

    3. Diversity a continuous process with an outcome to be seen and felt: building blocks and  masonry must result in the creation of a building. But what does it look like? Take into account which voices were present, what conflicts arose and how were they addressed, what processes and structures were reframed for inclusion, what knowledge was unearthed, what issues of power and privilege eradicated in the process. In addition, the process of diversity means constant revaluations of the questions, which are answered and used again as a new equation to be recalculated again.

Some may ask, “…isn’t this Social Justice?” No, they are not the same. One of the toughest admissions to make is that there are a large number of people of color, folks with disabilities, and other oppressed populations who feel Social Justice omits them from the picture. I am a big fan of Social Justice, it has provided some wonderful tools that I think are great for many situations. But I also lose out on my Latinidad as an asset, my culture is left at the door for “common good,” which can mean a group-think mentality. Social Justice tools and techniques can work alongside the tools of “diversity,” they are schools of thought to seen as cooperative and not competitive.

I may be off here. But, I hope future events can take into account the entire scope and range of the “D” word. It hurts when people walk with you, but still don’t get you. Again, I’m not a fan of the word. I use it alongside “equity,” “inclusion” “multiculturalism” interchangeably. I’m not championing the word, but advocating for a more comprehensive terminology that does not leave me as a checkbox, but a complete change agent and contributor to the new.

(Image Credit: “Unfinished Painting” by Keith Haring)

  • http://www.facebook.com/charlesdeonjackson Charles Jackson

    ‘diversity, social justice, “equity,” “inclusion” “multiculturalism” ‘ are often used interchangeably and the more I dig into each they are very different. I join you with the issue of numbers. 40 years ago many change agents felt if we get Blacks and women at the table everything would be ok, but that was only step one.

    After 40 years of diversity work we are seeing that what once we get people of color and other underrepresented groups at the table they need to have a voice. That’s where the “inclusion” comes in. Making sure CEO’s, Directors etc look like the people they are serving, public polices and laws being changed that’s what diversity and inclusion look like in this day and age.

    I lean more to social justice work now as I feel that eliminating injustices and all the isms is much more important than numbers or getting everyone together to sing We Are the World, because after all the singing is done people are still discriminated against because of their background.

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  • Jess

    I’d have to agree with Gregory Butler. This kind of stuff is partly what frustrates me in talking about any of this.

    In that sense I think this essay leaves me cold. Because I feel like it avoid the concrete, real question of what the hell we’re all supposed to do. Reading this I can’t come up with anything different I could do as I live my life and get through my day and work to make a living, get the dishes done and all that ordinary life stuff.

    And it also frustrates me because you can complain about the conventional social justice agenda all day long but ask yourself this: if you have, for example, a living-wage law in place, is it easier or harder for someone to target hiring minorities and pay them less? (The construction industry does this alot). Market incentives can be powerful, and one reason racist practices in hiring get reinforced is because it is profitable, and you get those terrible feedback loops. You have to start somewhere in breaking that cycle, and the simplest way to do it is to try to make it unprofitable. Is it a panacea? No. But it is a straightforward beginning that requires less explaining.

    In a similar vein, if you take the position that unions are necessary and health care should be a right and all that, it makes it a lot harder for people being racist to have an effect — because the very real things that would be denied people are now available, no matter what the old racists would say. In a system where health care is just an NQA right, you have a much different situation than where it isn’t. Simply put, even if the delivery of health care differs along racial lines (and it does) if everyone has it you at least have somewhere to start, and you aren’t in as desperate a situation, which makes it easier to fight for better things — including greater racial justice — without having to kill people. That’s the virtuous feedback loop — putting less-powerful people in a situation where they are less desperate and a little more powerful means they are in a position to ask for more and sometimes get it. It’s why conservatives HATE things like universal health care, minimum wages and all that stuff. It’s about power.

    (Think of the difference between the power transit workers had in say, 1900 and what they have now. While in NYC the union suffered a big defeat a few years ago, it’s worth remembering that they were in a position to fight at all. And most of the transit workers are not white).

    I freely admit that I could be missing something fundamental here in reading this. Maybe I focused too much on the problems mentioned with social justice.

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  • http://twitter.com/GREGORYABUTLER Gregory A. Butler

    Honestly, I don’t think I went far enough in school to understand what Hugo Najera is going on about here. From my perspective, in the less intellectualized provinces of America’s economy (I’m a carpenter) increasing the raw numbers of Blacks, Latinos, other people of color and women of all races in any business or institution is a pretty damned good idea (otherwise all the White men will keep hogging all the good jobs).

    As for Mr Najera’s more esoteric concepts – I don’t have a PhD so I honestly have no idea what he’s talking about!

    • http://blog.themerchgirl.net Tiara the Merch Girl

      I echo this sentiment. I get that he means that diversity should be more than just having tokens in your group, and that there is a tendency for events like these to be all talk no action. However, some help translating his concepts *into* actionable ideas would be a good start!