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Diversity is not enough

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By Gita Gulati-Partee  

New research from Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame suggests that diversity hurts civic life.

Known as a liberal scholar who champions diversity, Putnam reluctantly concludes that his study, the largest ever on civic engagement in the U.S., shows that diverse communities have lower levels of trust and participation in community life, or less social capital.

While diversity opponents and other defenders of the status quo laud the report as evidence that diversity is a net negative, and are already using it to argue against immigration and affirmative action, those of us interested in strengthening communities should not succumb to this oversimplification of the study’s findings.

Rather, we should take this report as a reminder that diversity alone – without an honest assessment and shift of power dynamics between privileged and oppressed groups and individuals – is not enough.

To build trust, we must intentionally create spaces for authentic relationships across lines of difference to emerge and, over time, foster new and stronger forms of social capital in truly just and equitable communities.

So, what are “authentic relationships”?

Early research and dialogue from the NC Peoples’ Coalition for Giving, a multi-cultural statewide network of people of color that highlights and celebrates the wealth of giving, in all its forms, from people and communities of color, identifies several elements that are both inputs as well as outputs of authentic relationships:

* Authentic relationships require and enable longevity.

They stand the test of time, allowing for deeper understanding and interconnectedness.

Putnam’s study shows that diverse communities tend to have greater mobility rates, thus undercutting the opportunity for longevity and posing a particular challenge for community builders.

However, we also must keep in mind that “community” is not defined solely by geography and imagine new ways to define and measure community participation.

* Authentic relationships arise from and build common values.

Neighborhood groups, faith institutions, and community-based nonprofits can foster dialogue to discover and build upon shared values across differences such as race, ethnicity, and income.

* Authentic relationships engage in and build skills for healthy conflict.

Rather than avoiding conflicts that naturally arise from different personalities and perspectives, thoughtful community builders can reframe conflict as a force for positive and creative change.

* Authentic relationships call for and call out mutuality and “ally” behavior.

Allies make the commitment and effort to recognize their privilege — based on such factors as gender, class, race, sexual identity — and work in solidarity with oppressed groups in the struggle for justice.

A true give-and-take requires a balance of power and an honest assessment of the privileged and oppressed identities among us.

* Authentic relationships are based on and generate more trust and accountability.

This challenges the crux of the Putnam study.

Rather than throwing up our hands in despair because diversity supposedly reduces trust, community builders should focus on building trust and accountability across differences, thus enabling truly authentic relationships to emerge and thrive.

The Coalition will continue to explore and share ideas related to authentic relationships.

We, ourselves, serve as a laboratory for this exploration.

We hope that our experience will offer an alternative, positive view about the value of diversity to civic life, as well as tools for community builders to fulfill the promise of diversity as a generator of social capital.


Gita Gulati-Partee is president of the national consulting practice OpenSource Leadership Strategies Inc. and co-manager of the NC Peoples’ Coalition for Giving, a partner agency with NC Gives in Raleigh, N.C.

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