Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Where are we coming from, where are we going to? Diversity and the importance of context.

If you’re reading this right now, you've probably seen images of rioting in Baltimore, or protests in Madison. You've seen cell phone videos of unarmed black men restrained, beaten, and shot. You've seen responses on Twitter, cable news, and blogs demonstrating anger, misunderstanding, confusion, and even indignance. The sheer volume of responses should demonstrate the overwhelming diversity of those involved in what is happening. And each different response suggests something else: no one is really looking at this from the same angle. And they can’t -- the whole basis of diversity is this range of experiences, beliefs, and norms. We can share some basic assumptions: that we are a society at a crossroads, that structural racism exists and that it means institutions do not serve entire groups within our society in the way they deserve. But even these are controversial, depending on your context. So where do we go from here? And is there even a ‘where’ to try to get to?

The way we've been going about this is not working. When each new event occurs – every time a black man is wounded or killed by a police officer – the response from pundits is to talk about it in one of two ways: it’s either an isolated incident with little context, or it’s a statistic. All we seem to want to do is talk about the event in itself. And that’s not the point. The point is, the system is not working for everyone, and we all interpret this differently. There is a world of context out there -- and it comes from all sides -- that no one is talking about.

Strangely enough, when this occurs, I’m struck by something said by someone few would expect to be poignant. When asked during an interview for the film, Bowling for Columbine, what he would say to the two school shooters at Columbine High School, musician Marilyn Manson made what I think is one of the most insightful comments when thinking about the violence and tragedies that our society has and is dealing with. Manson’s reply:

“I wouldn't say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.”[i]

As community leaders, nonprofit leaders, or even just community members, that’s what we can do. We do not all have the answer. In fact, separately none of us does. This isn't something that can be solved with a policy. You can’t break a centuries-long cycle of structural inequality with a law. But you can sit and listen -- to people telling their stories. To the context they can place it in. To what they face on a daily basis. To how they feel when they leave the house, or when a police car passes, or when a group of kids walks by them. We can try to aggregate this, but in the end, I’m not sure there are any statistics that really matter. There is really listening to people tell their stories. There is understanding that everything that happens has a context, and that context is different for everyone. That’s what it is to live in a diverse community. There is no singular experience. Everything that happens affects us differently because our life experiences have defined us this way or that. And that’s actually a beautiful and complicated thing.

In the end, we cannot possibly understand where everyone is coming from. To try to do so would be fruitless. But as a community leader, you can try to make it clear that the simple act of listening and making an effort to navigate and celebrate this diversity, to translate between groups who seem diametrically opposed, is the first step in a long, long road in the right direction. We’re going to need to know where everyone is coming from in order to try to find a ‘where’ to head towards.

[i] Bowling for Columbine. Dir. Michael Moore. Dog Eat Dog Films, 2002. Film.