The Forest Park Diversity Commission (DC) recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. We have helped spearhead the passage of the Welcoming Village Resolution, have contributed Forest Park Review articles on diversity in Forest Park, and have participated in several Forest Park events. As the wider United States struggles with being open and tolerant of people from different backgrounds, what is the DC's role in creating a diverse and inclusive community here in Forest Park?
At our most recent meeting, a guest commented: "This is a really white diversity committee." Some members agreed with her sentiment. The membership doesn't reflect the racial demographics of the village. Others, however, pointed out the diversity we do have. There are members who are gay, members who are disabled, members who are Asian, African American, and White, and all of the members have varying political beliefs. Both sides were saying something important about the meaning of diversity and the role of the Diversity Commission.
Diversity relies on the concept of various boxes we put people in—the male box (or not), the straight box (or not), the white box (or not). We have multiple boxes and people who do or don't fit into each of them. Diversity exists between "we're all different" and "we're all just people"; while both are true, both ignore very real issues about what it's like to be inside or outside of those boxes.
Those boxes, and the binaries of being in them or not, evolved for a reason: they are a form of shorthand that makes it easier for us to make sense of our complex world. However, being put into these boxes, and putting ourselves in them, robs us of the complexity that makes us human and obscures the many ways we are similar as well as different.
In thinking about these "either/or" categories, the Diversity Commission sees its role to encourage people to be more aware of and have respect for all the points inside and outside these boxes that make us human, to stretch how we think about those boxes, and question how they help and how they hinder us.
But doing so requires people to get out of their comfort zone.
As the DC, we can create "educational" programs to facilitate this process and urge community members to change their minds and become more aware of customs, habits, and ways of being that are unfamiliar. As we learn about them, we may need to redefine who fits where, who is accepted, and to ask ourselves what role we have played in making others feel included or excluded. Learning different ways to use categories so that people feel more included takes effort and can be tough. Who wants to go to an educational program that can be seen as a "downer" or is not relevant to a particular box. And, for such education to work, we need people to attend.
Perhaps, we should create "fun" programs that "celebrate" diversity. Yet, a desire to "celebrate" diversity can often mean reinforcing those "ether/or" categories we're trying to get rid of. These categories become distilled into essential traits inside or outside those boxes. And these traits often don't challenge our understanding, which keeps us from being able to address issues that arise between "we're all different" and "we're all just people." We must make the challenge of addressing those issues worthwhile.
To determine our role, we must acknowledge that our DC is diverse in many ways, but we must recognize where it is not enough. We cannot claim the right to define "diversity" only as we see fit, nor can we leave the definition to others. We must struggle over what it means to be political, to be educational, and struggle over how such an effort can be rewarding, and even fun.
What should a Diversity Commission do? It should serve as a space where struggling over these ideas is appropriate, and welcomed, and the work appropriate to every member of Forest Park. We look forward to continuing to define our role and reporting to you monthly on our progress in this column.
We'd love to hear your thoughts at our monthly meetings (the second Thursday of the month) and at: firstname.lastname@example.org.