Diversity Matters: We Can Make A Difference If We Reach Beyond to Embrace It
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is hardly an argument today for whether or not diversity matters - it does. We are all created equally and should be treated equally and fairly. However, many recognize that this isn’t always the case in our society. Is this realization enough to drive us to reach beyond, to admit that inequality still exists, and that we have to work harder to achieve the dream that Martin Luther King talked about? I would argue that while some may bristle with the “hashtag slogan” campaigns in the last few years, the truth is that we should be doing more to raise up those around us. To ensure that all have the equal opportunity that our constitution promises, and our morals call for. Even if you don’t believe this as a decent human, doing more to promote and drive diversity is simply a smart business decision. To not surround yourself with the best and brightest who represent the widest representation of your customer base possible is a critically poor strategic move. If you believe that diversity does matter, then today is a good day to ask the question of ourselves, how we can do more, how we can accomplish the dream that Dr. King spoke of.
"Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.” - John F. Kennedy
Understand that diversity is more than our physical differences. I served on the national board for a youth non-profit that created leadership opportunities for high school students. At the end of every seminar, we would take a group photo as a keepsake for those who attended this life-changing experience. One day, as I looked at photos of past seminars displayed proudly on my office wall, it hit me that the photos I was looking at weren’t representative of our community as a whole. Yes, everyone had the same opportunity to attend the seminar, we certainly didn’t exclude any one. But not all had the same level of exposure, encouragement, or even the financial support. So, we set a goal - to do a better job recruiting from those groups that were under represented at our seminars by connecting with organizations that could help make this a reality. Over the next couple of years, we made progress and it became one of the prouder accomplishments of my life. It also became a valuable lesson as I learned that simply being passive, simply believing that we were doing enough by accepting diversity from who was already applying was not going far enough. We needed to reach beyond what we were doing every day and work harder to create the opportunity for those who equally deserved it, but otherwise would never have had it. An added bonus, this new level of diversity provided a much richer experience for all who were involved.
My second learning through the process, we discovered that as we focused on the diversity that we could see and could easily identify, that which is noted on census reports, we were merely scratching the surface. As we reached outward and deeper into the community, we connected to a much broader audience. Those who were part of families who had everything, and those part of families struggling to make ends meet. Those who actively embraced religion, and those who didn’t. Those supremely confident in their abilities, and those with a significant level of anxiety or self-doubt. Those who knew their place in this world, and those who questioned it every day. The groups attending the leadership seminar not only represented a more authentic cross section of our population, they represented what a group of diverse individuals could accomplish together by embracing each other’s differences while working to find a common thread, making the overall experience more rewarding for all.
"If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse gift will find a fitting place.” - Margaret Mead
Diversity of thought matters just as much. People work hard to push for acceptance of certain groups, to push diversity, but then they are themselves resistant to a wider range of thought and opinions and instead surround themselves only with like-minded people. Any attempt at discussion is quickly brushed aside as if though to grant one group equality, you have to subvert your own. While I understand that I have been raised in a manner that has afforded me opportunities that others may not have had based on bias, that doesn’t discount the value of my thoughts, of my opinions, even if they are different than yours. That “melting pot” of ideas is what this country was founded on, and we need to regain the ability to sit at the table and discuss our challenges while seeking common ground. Perhaps we hold the same goal but have differing views on what path to take. Embracing a diversity of thought matters, if we are to truly achieve greater heights.
Think about this for a moment - in decades and centuries past, when immigrants would come to this country, they would often locate within a geographic area populated by their own culture. Often out of necessity, comfort, and even security. Most, over time assimilated into the broader community, but others stayed within the comfortable boundaries of the smaller culture that accepted them, who thought like them, and made them feel safe. However, they missed the opportunity to evolve and learn from others around them and at the same time influence others. Social media today allows us to live in much the same way, to seek out “like minded” people and circulate our thoughts amoungst those make us feel accepted and safe. But in doing so, we fail to step beyond our comfort zone and let the broader community influence our views, to expand our thoughts, even if challenging at times. We cannot shun the opinions of others if we truly are to embrace diversity and grow as a society.
“Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer! We must not let that happen here.” - Eleanor Roosevelt
We need to do more than just extend a hand, we need to reach deeper. This is a tough subject, one that may spark conversation, and I that is my intent. Throughout my career, I have understood the need for and supported diversity in hiring. I’ve always tried to choose the right candidate, regardless of any “category” that he or she may fall in, doing everything possible to ensure that we get as wide a spectrum of talent as possible. In other words, I did everything I could within what I was given. Box checked.
The reality is, if we are not getting applicants in certain areas, with a wider range of diversity, it isn’t good enough to simply say “well, we tried” and move on. Diversity is not accomplished by checking off a box, nor is it accomplished by lowering our standards simply to achieve a quota. Instead, we need to go back to the root cause of the issue and find out why we aren’t getting a diverse group of candidates and what we can do about it. What I have challenged myself to do is to reach beyond the traditional schools where we would recruit for marketing or merchandising and find smart, talented students from a variety of backgrounds and expose them to the opportunities that we offer. I may need to work a bit harder, drive a bit farther, talk a bit more, but in the end, I will likely positively impact my business because I have a richer pool of talent that better represents our customer base. And as a good human, I may create an opportunity for someone who otherwise would not have been exposed to it.
“Our task must be to free ourselves... by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” - Albert Einstein
Accepting isn’t enough, we need to embrace diversity.
Living in New York City and being in the fashion industry, I got to know many within the LGBTQ community. Even with my more conservative upbringing, I was always “accepting” of other lifestyles, whether I personally agreed with them or not. Live and let live, as many would say. But as I became friends with a more diverse group of people, involved in their lives, through each interaction I realized that the answer wasn’t “accepting” but rather EMBRACING who each person was. This required a deeper commitment from me, uncomfortable in the beginning, but it has impacted who I've become and how I view the world.
This means sometimes admitting that we don’t understand the issues that are impacting others, and that is ok. I don’t know that I fully understood and appreciated this until the birth of the #blacklivesmatters movement. I, like many “like minded” people felt that every life mattered, and that in today’s society, we do more harm than good by attempting to value one life over another. But that wasn’t really what was happening. In Texas, a teen girl was caught doing something that I did in my youth, going somewhere that she shouldn’t have been with friends. Trespassing. In an HOA where members had a right to be concerned. My immediate thought was “she broke the law” and deserved to be punished. But when people that I worked with and respected started to protest the harsh treatment that she received, I paused. I asked questions. I listened. And I realized that my daughter likely would not have been treated as harshly as this young woman was, likely because of the color of her skin. Yes, all lives matter but in this case, more needs to be done to ensure that we live up to that promise.
“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” - Mahatma Gandhi
A journey that started years ago for me, understanding why diversity matters and how I can make a difference, has come full circle with my daughter. Several months ago, at her 14th birthday party, I took a group picture and took note of the significant diversity within the friends that she invited to share the day with her. Choosing a place to live that offered her the opportunity to surround herself with diversity was important to us, but it has been her choice to take advantage of that. Driving home, I asked her about her group of friends, without trying to make too big a deal of it. She said, “it is important to me to have friends that don’t necessarily think the same way I do or have the same ideas I have.” She struggled a bit to explain why, as if it was second nature to her. What she said was, she depended on her friends seeing things differently than she did, so that when faced with a problem, she could look at it from their different perspectives. I think of this conversation often, and on days like today, I believe that while we have much more work to do, we may be closer to the dream that Martin Luther King had decades ago.