Regarding Variety

Hi friends. It’s me again. Thanks for reading along.

I’d like to take a moment to address variety. Variety is defined by Webster as “the state of being varied or diversified; difference; a number of different types of things”. Webster defines diversity as “the state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness; variety; multiformity; the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual orientation, etc.”.

Variety and diversity are very similar, and as you can see, can be used interchangeably for one area of definition. Far too often, when people use the term “diversity” – as in “we want diversity among educational professionals” – what they mean is a very narrow idea of the term specifically regarding color. This is pretty much the only type of diversity one can see when looking at another individual, and even then it isn’t entirely accurate as an indicator of that person’s actual racial or ethnic heritage.

Last summer I was blessed to be at a table in the audience with some esteemed colleagues for a panel discussion at the National Education Association’s Joint Conference on the Concerns of Minorities and Women. At one point I realized that not only was I the minority at the table of predominately African-American and Black educators, but also that the opportunity was perfect for me to learn more about how the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among educators, specifically among educators in communities with large concentrations of people of color, affects the children and families in those communities.

“My godson does not see teachers who look like him,” was one comment. My initial reaction, as a white female teacher, was to retort, “what does that matter? All kids can learn from any teacher.” However, on listening further to the conversation, I realized that seeing yourself in the positive role models and figures of authority around you is really vital to the sense of self that young people develop. Recently I read something online – probably on Facebook, if I’m to be honest – wherein a Black man said he wears suits because his male role models wore suits, and that when young Black men see role models wearing baggy jeans and hoodies, that’s what they are likely to wear. My own experiences as a classroom teacher for the past 15 years show that the trends shift whenever students see their idols – athletes, musicians, actors – and want to mimic that look.

I’m chock full of privilege. I look and sound like an upper-middle class, Caucasian, heterosexual, well-educated woman. That’s a lot of privilege right there. It’s up to the folks around me to call me on it when I’m making assumptions that have everything to do with who I am and nothing to do with who they are. It’s also a topic I’ve worked hard to become more aware of so I can check my own privilege, but that’s SO much more difficult.

Why am I saying all this? Because it is important.

People will say that there is a lack of diversity in educational professionals, among CEO’s, on Wall Street, in government, at churches of certain religions, on TV shows, etc. And there is. Proportionately speaking, there is. Proportionately speaking about race and ethnicity, there is. Same goes for high school drop-outs, college attendees, and prison inmates. But it also exists with regards to the other group of individuals represented on the list in the definitions above. And those are things it’s MUCH harder to determine without really getting to know someone.

When variety is on the surface, it is easy to see, to question, to throw stones at, to address. When variety is buried deeper, and it is not comfortable – or safe – to expose those parts of us in the public sphere, addressing those issues becomes much more difficult.

I’ve had this discussion, specifically around those in the GLBTQ community, wherein well-meaning individuals want to make sure the transgender voice is heard. How do we accomplish that without making one person the sole representative of the trans community, or outing someone, or otherwise prying deeply into a very personal part of someone’s life? In April I was fortunate to see Gus Morales speak, and he put it bluntly when he said that being Puerto Rican does not mean he speaks for ALL Puerto Ricans. How very fascinating, and how very anti- what many believe when they say they want voices of diversity to ensure that different communities are represented.

Listening to the school board in my district discuss the need for representation from many stakeholders on the superintendent search committee further illustrates how insanely difficult it can be to make sure that everyone is involved but that the size of the committee doesn’t exceed what would be reasonable to accomplish the work in a timely, organized manner. Once the committee size and representative make-up was established, the individuals sitting on the committee were by and large left up to the groups being represented. With parent and community seats, it becomes an issue of who is willing, who is available, and who is appropriate.

This has turned into a much longer post than I anticipated, and I’ve done a lot of dancing around the topic that sparked me to write it. In summation, let me say that when a representative group is convened to discuss issues and make decisions or recommendations, it is vital that the group members are diligent in carrying back the messages and discussions to those constituent groups who are unable to participate, and that feedback and communication flow in return to the representative group. Representatives are responsible not only for the two-way flow of communication, but also for learning about the topic, for being open to discussion and consensus, for honoring the time and work of others who are also observing those responsibilities, and in some cases for representing the organizations they are appointed to serve. This can be an insanely difficult task, but if done correctly, all the voices should be engaged, not just the ones around the table.

We all have preconceived notions of what we think is best, and of what we want. A representative group is not a place to voice our own personal opinions and ideas, but to put forth the opinions and ideas of those who we represent AND of studies done on the topics at hand. Rather than a “he said she said” dialogue, a war of the writers, there should be an openness and willingness to see multiple sides and understand why things are the way they are and where the intersectionalities exist that can foster true, abiding change.

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