Diversity and inclusion. We discuss these topics in the classroom, in our politics, and in our homes. They are vague buzzwords that are easy to say, but more difficult to explain, and even more difficult to realize. Some may find these topics to be threatening. Diversity and inclusion sound good in concept, but does their pursuit mean change, and does change mean loss of something one has worked hard for? Some in positions of power may find discussion of these topics to be accusatory. Does calling for more diversity imply that I am against diversity and inclusion? Or that I somehow did not make an honest effort to be inclusive? Or worst, are you suggesting I am racist or biased?
To be blunt, discussions of diversity and inclusion can easily degrade into a knee-jerk defensiveness, or a knee-jerk condemnation. I personally do not think it has to be that way. At a recent neighborhood meeting I shared a favorite quote from the great Jane Jacobs that, I think, articulates the ideal of diversity and inclusion:
“[I]n real life only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life, and use. Superficial…variety may look like diversity, but only a genuine content of economic and social diversity…has meaning…and the power to confer the boon of life upon [a place].”
I love this quote because it illustrates that diversity is a broad concept with specific manifestations. Diversity refers to the built environment and the way human beings interact with it. Diversity refers to connections between places, between neighborhoods, between uses, and between people. Diversity refers to economic and social variety, and recognizes that one’s income or race does not dictate their inclusion at the civic table. Diversity refers to the interactions between generations. Diversity refers to constant change, and the fact that it is impossible to freeze a neighborhood, a city, a state, or a nation at a point in time.
But most importantly, Jacobs recognizes that diversity is an asset that makes our places, and our society, better. Diversity is our reality, the question is how best to embrace it in ways that breathe life into our world. Here is where inclusion comes in. Informal inclusion can be easy, it is saying hello to a stranger, striking up a conversation with a new neighbor, letting people know about an event or opportunity, etc. Formal inclusion means elevating new voices when the opportunity presents itself. Not because we are pursuing superficial variety, but because more voices at the table means more ideas, more legitimacy for our institutions, and more of that boon of life to which Jacobs refers.
Even more to the point, the pursuit of diversity through inclusion is not a competing interest with other priorities. It is not a threat, but something we can live everyday in formal and informal ways that make our society stronger.