By Susannah Wellford | Opinion Contributor | usnews.com
The other night I attended an all-black comedy revue with my son James. Both of us are white and almost the entire audience was black. In the beginning we laughed uncomfortably at the jokes about how you determine how black you are (do you have hot sauce in your pocket?); at the “slave auction” where the black cast sized up a white volunteer from the audience and found him lacking; and at the jokes about how the white equivalent to the Black Lives Matter rallies are protests against gluten. James and I definitely did not fit in – but as I sat there in the dark laughing with the crowd I began to feel like I was a part of it, and that I was being let in to a place I don’t usually get to go.
We’ve come so far in integrating white and black America since my parents’ day when they remember seeing “colored” water fountains at the bus station. Both my parents were involved in the civil rights movement, and they look around today and think so much has changed for the better. But watching the show the other night, I thought about how much space still divides us. I can laugh along with the black audience, but I will never really know what it means to be black. The best I can do is to listen and learn. To be open to people coming from different experiences. To be empathetic to struggles that I don’t face myself. To get out of my comfort zone and to feel what it is like to live in another person’s skin if just for a little bit.
I’m lucky to work with a very diverse group of women. Over half of the young women we train at my organization, Running Start, are women of color, as are the trainers we work with. The young women are a beautiful mix of black, white, Latina, Muslim, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, rural, urban, gay, straight and many other things. And while we are teaching them the concrete skills of fundraising, networking and talking to the media, we also teach a subtler lesson. These young women who come from all over the country to spend a week in D.C. are thrown into social situations with people whose life circumstances are radically different than theirs. Think private school vs. foster care. Often for the first time, they confront very different realities, and they have to learn how to get along with each other.
It is exciting to witness the transformation of Diversity from its narrow meaning of race and gender to now embracing the much broader concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This concept invites everyone to the table to find solutions together. I recalled, 20 plus years ago, joining a company that was completely White and Southern. While the people were VERY nice, during my interview, some expressed a fear of the unknown and others had sincere concerns about how my presence would change the dynamics of conversations and perhaps forced them to walk on ‘egg shells’ to not offend me. I assured them that we must all continue to be our authentic selves and learn from each other. This approach led to many honest and transparent conversations that literally transformed the culture of the company into one that respected and valued diversity, equity and inclusion. We also developed personal relationships that we continue to cherish today. – Etheline Desir
We know by now that diversity in leadership isn’t just essential because it is fair, it is essential because it is smart. Add women to a corporate board and the company makes more money. Add minority voices to a legislative body and the decisions are more innovative and complete. But getting diverse people in a boardroom isn’t enough; we also need to find meaningful ways to connect with each other as people. While we are making strides in incorporating new voices in leadership, our society is still segregated in so many social ways, from the churches we go to, to the neighborhoods we live in, to the friends we make. I see this even at the beginning of Running Start programs – at first, during their down times, the students tend to hang out with people who look like them. By the end of our intensive schedule of training, everyone has bonded and the groups sitting together have completely scrambled. If we are ever going to really understand each other, we have to find a way to not just work together but to feel comfortable socially as well. This is certainly true when you look at politics. The women in the Senate from both sides of the aisle have dinner together once a month. They get to know each other as people, as friends, and that has allowed them to work across party lines in a way that the men in Congress rarely do these days. We need to create more situations where we can get outside our comfort zones and mix with people who are different from us.
I realize that as a white woman this is easy for me to say. It is people who look like me who make up the power structure (well, like me, but male), and finding opportunities to connect with people different than you is not always possible when you are in the minority. But we can all find small ways to reach out, to embrace differences and to find common ground with each other. As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”