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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)

Originally posted to Hepshiba's Pad on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 03:32 AM PDT.

Also republished by White Privilege Working Group, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Start with what matters -- people (7+ / 0-)

    For all organizations it is important to find the links that connect it with others and other organizations.

    Making the organization a healthy community benefits every one.

    Also, there are opportunities in pursuing diversity, both for the people in the organization, and for the connections outside.

  •  Excellent. Much needed and appreciated (7+ / 0-)

    I think organizing can be hard enough that people don't always intend to be "exclusive" when they form groups. Rather they are trying to maintain focus: Incorporating diverse perspectives may mean five "factions" have five different top priorities; a group with five top priorities doesn't have a true top priority. Maybe it's all about balance.

    Really looking forward to the rest of this series. This diary is why we has the ability to "hotlist." It looks like this is a resource many of us may return to for a long time.

    I'm not a natural leader or organizer, but this resource seems like a tool which might help either by convincing us that  we too can "get the ball rolling," or at least make it possible for us to be more effective followers.

    Thanks again.

    An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out? Rene Descartes

    by Had Enough Right Wing BS on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 05:32:55 AM PDT

    •  "why we *have* the ability" -- it's early! n.t. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MKSinSA, hepshiba, Nulwee, Onomastic

      An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out? Rene Descartes

      by Had Enough Right Wing BS on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 05:51:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Yes, my point is that exclusiveness (8+ / 0-)

      is something we need to deliberately avoid, because it happens to us so "naturally" and easily.

      But diversity of perspective isn't neatly divided into "factions."  Perhaps I need to make it more clear that it's perfectly fine to found an organization with a single, particular purpose (for example, providing shelter for battered women).  You wouldn't want anyone in your organization who didn't believe that battered women should have shelter, or who thought that battered women were responsible for their own victimization.  Activist organizations need clear and coherent political, economic, and social goals, and there's no sense including "factions" that are only going to limit your ability to fulfill your purpose.

      On the other hand, if your organizational leadership and the large majority of its membership is heterosexual, middle-class and white, you are less likely to be able to serve battered women in working class communities, minority communities, LBT communities, and so on.  Those are the alternate perspectives you need to include in order to better fulfill your mission.

      Learning to be diverse also means learning to make distinctions between members of under-represented communities -- to recognize that there is a particular flavor of misogyny in, for example, African American culture(s) that needs to be addressed in a manner appropriate to that community instead of just applying "white" solutions to violence against women in those communities, as if "white" were a universal standard.

      That's what I mean when I say that diversity is always contextual. There's no "recipe" to cook up proper demographics for diverse organizations in general -- instead, there are effective methods for ensuring that a particular organization incorporates the views of the members of those communities who have a stake in your mission.  

      I hope not to take too much time between postings, and I do hope that guide will be useful for those who want to find use in it...

      "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

      by hepshiba on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 06:46:19 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Gotcha, I think, I was maybe looking at a (0+ / 0-)

        more nuts and bolts type of "faction."

        For example, with the illustration of providing shelter for battered women [and this is all admittedly conjecture, I don't pretend to know anything about this]. If one segment of the group felt the basic answer was simply to make safe physical places available, another urged a primary focus on making some form of personal counseling available, yet another might think legal advice was of paramount importance, etc. If a group was formed by a few lawyers to help provide shelter for battered women they may try to include many different elements as resources for the women they sought to help, but it seems likely that they might highlight the legal aid aspects more than a group formed by realtors or dentists.

        People who didn't support the mission at all, almost without regard to how it was defined, would likely drift away quickly. Sometimes when we really,REALLY care we can end up competing with allies, though. (And I mean in a not necessarily productive way).

        Every situation may require particular combinations of people to nurture a group into existence. Sharing your experiences as an organizer may only be part of what you're doing here. The other part is actually modeling it; forming a group about forming groups.

        An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out? Rene Descartes

        by Had Enough Right Wing BS on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 05:33:40 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Organizations have a mission (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Had Enough Right Wing BS

          and certainly it's fine to focus.  But let's take the example of the organization that provides legal aid to battered women. They're lawyers and they are going to do what they do best -- use the law to provide support to the community they want to serve.  And it's fine if they aren't focused on personal counseling and safe spaces (as long as they have ties to organizations that provide those things and can refer clients). And dentists might organize to create free dental clinics for communities in need, and so on.  These are all admirable goals and it would be foolish to have two competing (rather than cooperative) organizations providing the same services. Competing against allies is always a bad idea because the communities you serve are the ones who lose out.  But that's a separate issue from diversity, in my opinion.

          My concern in this handbook is to pay attention to how each organization, with its separate mission, can diversify in the context of its own field of endeavor.  

          It's interesting, though, that you speak of modeling.  I'm not sure that can really happen here.  My intent is not to form a group with a mission, but to provide a resource folks can use to help create or change groups, and a place to discuss these questions. If they (you) want to try these suggestions out in practice, I'll be happy to discuss strategy and tactics and to offer what help I can, but I'm not setting myself up as any kind of founder or leader in this particular space.

          There are existing anti-racism (etc.) individuals and groups whose job it is to provide diversity training, counseling, consciousness raising. Some of them are excellent, and some of them are not.  Some are grassroots activist groups, and others are making a good profit in what's become the "diversity industry."  (I'll talk about the industry at a later point.) In my opinion, it would be a good thing to pick the one(s) you like and throw your weight behind them, to prevent just the sort of competition with allies that you warn against. :)

          "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

          by hepshiba on Fri Jul 29, 2011 at 01:11:31 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I may be the worst imaginable person as far as (0+ / 0-)

            forming an organization. Yet so much needs to be done. I've waited too long for better leaders to present themselves, and frankly I'll always be looking to hand off a big chunk to "more and better" activists.

            I think, using your handbook, I might find ways to combine efforts with others. Working as an individual has its satisfactions but it's not as productive.

            As part of the effort to build diversity into organizations you mention identifying the natural leaders of various communities. Will your series explore not only how to find these leaders but how to get them involved, or is that too basic? Spotting people who attract followers can be obvious, but what about people who have a hidden capacity for leading?

            I've always appreciated the value of diversity, but I'm desperate enough for pretty much any leaders that I can also understand if people are tempted to "just get started."

            An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out? Rene Descartes

            by Had Enough Right Wing BS on Fri Jul 29, 2011 at 05:58:36 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I will be covering (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Had Enough Right Wing BS

              how to connect with existing community leaders, and to encourage emerging leaders in a diverse organization. Again, there's no single recipe for this, but there are strategies that organizations can use to maximize their chances of attracting the interest of leaders from under-served communities.

              "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

              by hepshiba on Fri Jul 29, 2011 at 06:36:47 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

      •  Glad to see this was posted again -- we are (0+ / 0-)

        actually going to post it in the women's dialogue so we can discuss it -- kept getting delay.  Not because we are avoiding this -- but because we were trying to follow the suggestions and not doing very well.  I am new to DailyKos and, while I haven't worked in an organization that was not at least somewhat multicultural in a long time, it seems to be harder to do on the net.  
        Have invited a couple of women at the suggestion of another woman who is also involved in trying to get the women's dialogue off the ground (wanted to do it quickly since we just started and I just realized we had a problem).  One woman is going to do a diary from her perspective as a Latina. Another woman politely declined because she saw it as the Women's Movement defining itself as white middle class women.  
        Anyway, sometimes the issue does it for you.  Went to the court house today to support Diallo and watch DSK (the IMF  guy who sexually abused her -- she was the maid in his hotel)wiggle out of any charges.  It really was a strange mix of black women (New Black Panthers among others) and young white women's groups like Slutwalk and mixed groups from NOW to the old left groups like Workers World.  Gonna try to do a diary on that next week. Week after will probably be your article -- by then we will have at least tried to contact women who can comment on the Women's Dialogue project -- positively or negatively, doesn't matter, as long as we dialogue.

  •  It's seems like sort of a tautology (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    hepshiba, Nulwee

    to say that the best way to ensure the diversity of an organization is to create a diverse organization. I'm not sure that looking at this "in theory" in that helpful. Speaking as someone who has helped to form dozens of organizations, nearly all founded by people of color, one thing that I can say for sure is that they are all unique. If you know of good examples of diverse organizations, you should name them, and talk about the specifics of how they came to be so.

    •  No, it's not a tautology (9+ / 0-)

      It's an explanation that starting out diverse is better than diversifying after the fact, though techniques for both will be addressed in future postings.  And this isn't "theory," it's a practical handbook based on the years of work I've done with white-dominant organizations who claim to want to diversify.  All organizations are unique in the particulars, but amazingly similar in the categories of problems that they face. This is why I'm more interested in writing a handbook than a set of case studies.  I've done the case studies I needed to do, and these are the conclusions to which I've come after 30+ years of study and practice.  But you're welcome to write case studies yourself, and I would certainly read them.

      What I don't appreciate is being scolded by someone who says:  you "should" tell this story my way, because I'm an authority.  We should all tell our stories in our own ways, and write the way we feel best qualified to write.  Diversity of perspective is itself a worthy goal.

      "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

      by hepshiba on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 06:30:29 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  What an great diary (7+ / 0-)

    I cannot stress the importance of Items 1 & 2 under Part 1:1. I am always amazed at how few organizations, businesses even, bother with the hard work set out in those two areas, especially the second.

    I remember dating a lawyer years ago and learning that she, after running into problems with her partners, had no recourse because in establishing the firm they'd crafted no partnership agreement. I was shocked: these were lawyers, after all, and labor lawyers at that!

    I look forward to reading your continuing series.

    Trump / Palin 2012: "You're Fired / I Quit"

    by MKSinSA on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 06:40:26 AM PDT

  •  This (8+ / 0-)
    Most people have neither the commitment nor the nerve to do this and so segregation is the rule rather than the exception.  

    could be the banner for Daily Kos

    Everything you say in your excellent piece fits this site to a T

    93% white and not moving in their numbers or climate

    •  I hear you (9+ / 0-)

      loud and clear. An organization will not generally diversify unless its leaders want to diversify.  And Kos's leaders, with a few notable exceptions, have made it clear that a commitment to diversity is not a priority. As always, that saddens me because I feel it undercuts an organization's power, reach and effectiveness and the American progressive movement needs as much of all three as it can muster.

      The demographics are against a thriving progressive movement if it's majority white.  African Americans are the most progressive demographic in the country and without you all, the Democrats won't be able to keep carrying elections. The Latino vote is getting more liberal (especially among the young) and more anti-Republican because of the Republican stance on the immigration issue. But instead of rallying those communities and creating a welcome space at the table, I see increasing repetition of right-wing-spawned racist memes in the white progressive movement, white disdain for voters of color, white neglect of voting issues in communities of color (felon disfranchisement, redistricting, voter fraud), and, worst of all, the perpetuation of a "white victim" mentality that used only to be parroted by dittoheads.

      The whole thing reminds me far too much of the Populist Movement's downfall (1880s-1890s), when the rich southerners who took over the Democratic Party successfully played on white poor and working class fantasies of racial superiority and got them to vote for disfranchisement policies that, in the end, barred far more white southerners than black southerners from participating in the electoral process.  Few people know that the group most benefited by the Civil Rights Voting Act were exactly that group of disfranchised whites.

      "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

      by hepshiba on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 07:07:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  And this: (7+ / 0-)
    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

    I have seen this so often.  I think the issue of building trustworthy relationships across faultlines of race, class, genders, sexualities, abilities first is at the heart of good organizing and creating multiracial organizations that also are economically diverse and able to share power in other respects.  That's the work so many are reluctant to do, not because they/we are bad people, but because it takes us/them out of what we know.  And yet it is the richest, most rewarding thing possible.

    Teach us to listen to sounds larger than our own heartbeat; that endure longer than our own weeping in the dark. - Lillian Smith

    by RadioGirl on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 08:46:02 AM PDT

  •  The reasons I don't found organizations (5+ / 0-)

    (1) I know very few people
    (2) I don't get along well with people


    Read pp. 1-7 of Krugman's _The Great Unraveling_ (available from Google Books). NOW.

    by neroden on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 10:20:40 AM PDT

    •  If we all founded organizations... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      we'd never get anything done.

      "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

      by hepshiba on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 12:03:31 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I can identify with what you're saying Neroden. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Like you, I will likely never "found" an organization.

      The reasons you list (among others) are precisely why I want to be involved, though. Maybe not as a leader, but I'm fine with being a contributor.

      Maybe I'm projecting, rather than reading what you actually wrote.

      Part of my interest is that through actions I can become who I want to be. A major element that attracts me to this site is the opportunity to learn from more experienced activists (like hepshiba, for example).

      It might be a little like things we learned in school--we never know which information will be valuable later. Sometimes the most satisfying things are those I have to work a little harder for.

      An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out? Rene Descartes

      by Had Enough Right Wing BS on Fri Jul 29, 2011 at 05:22:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  At founding time, (3+ / 0-)

    one of the most important principles for an organization that believes in diversity of thinking as well as people, would be to outline how to resolve conflict.  Healthy organizations have some measure of it that will motivate further innovation.  Stagnation sets in upon hiring people that fit personality profiles already present or people with redundant skillsets.

    Great diary!

    Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up...East Wing Rules

    by Pithy Cherub on Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 11:50:08 AM PDT

  •  I've encountered... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...limits on the diversity that organizations are willing to accept. And I've been told that even wanting to join is just an expression of privilege.

    It wasn't pretty.  

  •  Glad I've got this on RSS feed, or I never would (0+ / 0-)

    have seen it.  I enjoyed your previous diary immensely and am looking forward to reading your manual as you post it.

    Please, call me "Loris."

    by s l o w loris on Sun Jul 31, 2011 at 10:44:00 AM PDT

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