In the last diary I wrote, I talked about my experiences working with white feminist organizations who claimed to want to diversify. It was a sad story. But the story doesn't always have to end that way. It actually is possible to build a thriving, healthy, diverse organization that serves the needs of different communities simultaneously. I've been taking notes for years, with the intent of writing a manual on diversifying for organizations that are serious about the task. This is as good a time to start writing it as any, so here goes...
NOTE: It is my practice not to name individuals or specific organizations in my work. I prefer to keep the focus on theory and method, rather than distracting from my purpose. Most of my observations could apply to any organization, and I don't doubt that some of them will resonate with your own experiences. My examples may be taken directly from life or may combine several incidents into one, so as to be as illustrative as possible of the points that I want to make. The guide is based on my years of experience as a feminist and anti-racist working with and in a wide variety of organizations. As such, it is a subjective document -- a matter of informed opinion. I claim no ultimate authority, but I hope it will be useful.
PART I.1: How Organizations Are Founded
Most organizations start in someone's kitchen, or living room, or over lunch at a restaurant, or at a gathering of activists, or other similarly informal meeting. A few folks get to talking, and the consensus arises: "We need an organization to get this done!" Then these folks start to talk to other folks they know and, if the idea is good, they're encouraged to take it further and get the ball rolling. At this stage of the new organization, founders are the most passionate about the project. It's not easy to get a new organization off the ground -- it takes driven, dedicated, hard-working movers and shakers -- and it's easy to assume that those who want it the most, and are willing to work for it the hardest are it's "natural" leaders.
These leaders are faced immediately with a number of tasks that all need to be carried out simultaneously:
1. Create a mission statement.
2. Draw up a plan for concrete action (what will the organization actually do?)
3. Recruit the members of both the working Board of the organization, and the "stars" that will shine on the "Advisory Board."
4. Find funding.
5. Publicize the organization and recruit members.
In all the hustle and bustle, the folks behind new organizations almost always take the path of least resistance because they've simply got so much to do. They rely on the people they know (and their connections) to supply them with the know-how, personnel, and outreach that will nurture the new organization and allow it to grow. Again, this seems "natural," but it's usually the beginning of a problem that will plague the organization throughout its lifespan.
People Go With What They Know
We all live in a bubble of our own experience, and survive with limited input. We meet and interact with the people around us, form connections and friendships, collegial relationships, community ties, antagonisms and affections. When a group assembles itself, most often it includes people we already know, or know by one or two removes, or whose views and goals we believe match our own. In a segregated society where people of different racial and class backgrounds are rarely in our view, our groups tend to be homogenous at formation. And they tend to stay homogenous if we don't put in the effort to ensure they are diverse.
This is why diversifying an organization at its formation is the most crucial step you can take to ensure diversity and organizational effectiveness in the long term.
Why Its Easier to Found a Diverse Organization Than to Change an Existing Organization
Most people think of a "diverse" organization as an organization that incorporates more than token numbers of under-represented racial and gender groups. I've been called in to consult with organizations that feel that their group is, for example, "too white." Their goal, usually, is to attract more non-white members, or more women, etc. How many? Enough to make the leadership "feel comfortable" that the organization is "diverse."
What such organizations often do not understand is that opening an homogenous group is not simply a cosmetic matter, but a matter of examining and shifting the organization's power structure, policies and practices to reflect the goals of its new members. This isn't easy when policy is already entrenched, the power hierarchy is already created and filled with individuals who are not happy to relinquish or share power, when funders have been solicited on the basis of support for projects already in place, and so on. At this point it may be impossible for a true program of diversification to gain traction among the Board or membership. The best time to diversify is the period of an organization's formation, when structures are still fluid and no boundaries are yet defined and set, and members of under-represented communities can be brought in to the work of creating and defining an organization's goals and practices.
How to Make Diversity More than Bean Counting
Diversity is more than a matter of head counts, and is often unrelated to city, state, or nation-wide demographics. It requires involving the right communities in the right organizations at the right times. Many times it requires that certain communities be in the majority, and that others stand more on the side-lines. Diversity is always context dependent. And the only way to make sure your organization is diverse is to take a good, hard look at your organization's stated purposes and goals, to make a list of the communities that your organization wants to assist, change, educate, etc., and to make sure that every community you want to serve or support has a say in the allocation of your resources, the choice of your personnel, the location(s) of your endeavors, the methods you design, and the shape of the final goals you put forward.
It's not easy to make that list because our point of view is often far too narrow. When you look at the communities you want to serve or support, make very sure that you haven't omitted any. Are there racial or ethnic groups you might have failed to consider? Age groups? Women? GLBT? People with different abilities? Just like you won't have participants in wheelchairs if you don't build ramps to your facilities, you won't have participants from other groups if you don't build bridges to their communities. It is at this moment, when you make your list, that you set the stage for the future development of your organization's diversity and representativeness.
Why Does Diversity Make a More Effective Organization?
"Objectivity," said Gregory Bateson to his daughter, "means that you look very hard at what you choose to look at." We all have our particular frames of reference and points of view, and these determine what we choose to look at. If we surround ourselves with people who share our frame of reference, odds are that we will all be looking at the same, or similar things, and we will miss things that lie outside of our frames. When creativity counselors talk about "thinking inside the box," this is what they mean -- the frame we are using limits our ability to freely imagine alternatives. We can't even imagine what we might not be seeing.
Creativity and innovation require that we look outside the box -- this philosophy has, in fact, been adopted into most leadership training programs including those for businesses (in theory, if not in practice). Advocating this sort of creativity is all well and good, but the easiest and surest way to ensure that your group can look outside the box on a regular basis is to staff it with people who are looking out of a diverse set of boxes. In short, what seems to be a terrible problem from my perspective might have an obvious solution from someone else's perspective. And someone else might spot a problem where I never guessed one would arise.
Diversity gives us more perspectives, more ideas, more strategies, more tactics and enables us to devise better solutions. The price of diversity, however, is that power must be shared among the groups represented by the organization and that the leadership who sets policy must also be diverse. This is why tokenism (counting heads) never creates real diversity. Diversity requires integration of diverse frames of reference at every level of power in an organization.
But the Only People I Know are Just Like Me!
Many nations are so segregated that it's quite difficult to create diversity among your acquaintances and friends, even if you want to. Members of different groups and classes tend to be isolated within their own communities, and the isolation is enforced by the convergence of institutionalized economic, political and social forces that punish the boundary breakers. Diversification is not easy because segregation is the way the society maintains the current balance of power. Challenging segregation is usually uncomfortable and sometimes outright dangerous.
A challenge to segregation by an oppressed group usually results in the quick mustering of mainstream institutions and forces against the attempt to "rock the boat." Penalties for transgression range from the economic to the physical. Minority group members who are willing to challenge segregation understand the seriousness of the undertaking, for it sometimes involves putting their safety, and the safety of those they love, at risk. If you want minority members to participate in your organization, you need to make clear how they and their community will benefit from their involvement. If your organization's founders are mainstream, don't expect minorities to come looking for you and to knock on your doors. It's your job to go to their communities and prove your organization is an investment that's worth the risk.
This means that you'll have to do some serious research. You need to find out who the leaders in those communities are -- which people are key to the success of your efforts in that community. Then you have to ask those people to suggest other individuals you might want to recruit into shared leadership positions in your organization. This isn't easy because most communities are themselves splintered into groups that struggle among each other for power. Not just any leader in that community will do -- you need to become sophisticated enough to distinguish among community leaders and their goals and beliefs and not, for example, consult the wealthiest members of a community that is majority working-class. Differentiating between different forces in the community is a form of respect, while racism is the assumption that any given member of a community can represent the whole.
Mainstream/majority culture is quick to penalize even majority members who are intent on making change. The only way for a majority culture member to desegregate their life and diversify their environment is to violate established social norms, and that takes courage, principle, and the ability to put one's beliefs into one's lived practice. Most people have neither the commitment nor the nerve to do this and so segregation is the rule rather than the exception. My assumption, if you have read this far, is that you embrace the opportunity to be an exception, so let's look at what you can do to create genuine diversity in your organization.
(Part of an ongoing series: Upcoming: Part 1.2: An Outline for Building Diversity from the Ground Up)