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On Real Diversity

August 16, 2008

I’m going to get right to it: the photo above? Not “real diversity.” That photo is propaganda. A couple token people of color thrown into a mix of white folks in business attire. Diverse nothing.

When I talk about “diversity,” I’m not talking about photo-ops. I’m not talking about political correctness or anything else that most idiots think of when they say “diversity.” No – I’m talking about a real mix of people, cultures, opinions, appearances, etc.

So what has me on this topic? Ridiculous as it may seem to those that have not shared my experience, I’m talking about the camp I just spent the last month working at. An experience I’ve loved and longed-for for 4 years running, and this year it became most clear to me what is so special about that experience: real diversity.

The kind of diversity most people dare not see in their lives. Diversity of opinion and ways of being. Diversity of experiences. The last month I spent time with immigrants, youth, my elders, homosexuals, first-generation Americans, Native Americans, athletes, artists, hippies, hip-hop artists, writers, rich folks, poor folks, middle-class, youth workers, maintenance workers, students, teachers, professors, at least 7 different languages spoken . . . the list goes on. And that was just the staff. We had racial diversity covered, as well, but not in that way of finding token folks to fill gaps. The people of color were diverse in background, opinion, and culture, as well.

I didn’t agree with everybody. I didn’t appreciate everybody’s music or art. Not everybody liked the things I like. Some of them HATED some of the things I enjoy. We said things we shouldn’t have, at times. We called each other out. We held each other accountable. And we RESPECTED each other. Every last one of us. And damn, did we all learn a lot from each other.

And that’s what real diversity is about. It’s about learning. It’s about being tossed right out of your comfort zone, shutting your mouth, and learning from somebody that you wouldn’t have chosen to be learning from in your own ideal “perfect world.” Because people don’t actually WANT true diversity. We want the kind that looks like us, speaks like us, agrees with us. We don’t truly want diversity of opinions and experiences – because then we get offended, and our own personal truths get challenged. And so we stick with token diversity and call ourselves “open-minded.”

But sometimes, we find ourselves in a position in which real diversity surrounds us. I wanted to work at this camp. I did not choose (mostly) the people that I worked with. And so I found myself living in a small community (about 80, when the kids were there) made up of a truly diverse population for a month. And it filled me up. And it made me need more.

I can’t even begin to catalogue all I’ve learned from being out there. I learned about the MOVE movement in Philadelphia from a man who lived it first-hand (if you don’t know that story, look it up). I’ve learned about life on the res and the Native American world in the United States. I’ve been exposed to up-and-coming hip hop artists and folk singers, as well as established hip hop artists, rock and roll stars, and poets. I’ve talked about life in Thailand, Venezuela, Mali, Cuba, Vietnam, Mexico, Turkmenistan, Russia – all with people born in those countries. I’ve had real conversations with the rich white head of one of the biggest advertising companies in the world (associated with Coca-Cola and Nike). I’ve shared my fire and experiences with rich white board members to kids of all races living in poverty. I’ve learned some sign language from a deaf cook and celebrated the upcoming marriage of a gay woman. I’ve argued with all of them, and I consider all of them friends – most of them knowing me better, in spite of our vast differences, than most of the friends I’ve known for years.

All in four one-month chunks. And that’s only the beginning.

And I only wish that there was a way to make this happen in the “real” world. I’ve thought to myself, ‘I just need to hang out with these folks more in Portland.’ But that’s not true. Because, in Portland, I would be hanging out with these folks in their own social circles – where this kind of true diversity would not exist. Because people are not willing to put in the time to get to know people that don’t fall into their own, “safe,” comfort-zone level of diversity. And that’s so sad.

And I don’t really know if I have any solutions. There must be some, but I struggle to come up with any. Because I know this is something that is important – I know that my soul NEEDS this – but I have no idea how to get it. I have no idea how to consciously create real diversity in my own life. Because knowing them all and hanging out with them individually is not enough. I want it all in one place. I want that beautiful mixing of ideas and ways of being that creates something new and amazing. One-on-one is better than nothing, and I have that – but I want MORE.

Because I have seen more, and now there is no going back.

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2 comments

  1. i second that- well stated.

    i try to imagine how to bring that home, and since you aren’t bringing a hundred people with you it will not look at all the same, and back home how do you create that reason for such interdependence, group work, common ground, away from so many of the daily distracters of our lives.

    i am serious about the 13th- i will try to do my part to get folks together. It is important to keep the connections and grow them wider and find ways to facilitate that togetherness across divides in the the “real” world.


  2. I should have left where I’m working a year ago. I’m doing admin stuff, which makes me crazy, and doesn’t use half of my brains, etc. Some days I am so bummed by my whole work experience.

    But I can’t leave. Because my work place DOES have true diversity – at least a little of it. It’s not just the labels that the people here carry, although there are enough of those. It’s the respect they have for other’s opinions and worlds. Even the white people are diverse (am I allowed to say that?). No one is ever treated as though they don’t have a part in all the conversations that go on in this place – conversations about sexism, racism, privelage, culture, I could go on…

    It’s addictive. It’s instructive. It makes up, most days, for the hard and boring and soul-sucking parts of my job. And I can’t leave, because I don’t know where else, or how else, to get it.

    If you find out, let me know…



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