In post-election interviews, both Mayor Calderone and commissioner elect Rachell Entler said they want to get moving on the formation of a Diversity Committee. I think that is a good and needed thing, but it’s tricky.
The issue of diversity is tricky because it includes a lot more than just race. For example, I know an African-American young man who, when he moved to Oak Park and River Forest High School from out of town, was introduced by a guidance counselor to a group of black students sitting at a table in the lunchroom because he, too, was black. She thought she was being culturally sensitive. Turns out he was highly motivated to excel academically, while they ridiculed studying as “trying to be white.” Same race. Way different view of the world.
Diversity includes skin color, to be sure, but it also encompasses country of origin, religion, political preference, culture, gender, education, personality type, age and economic status. I feel more in sync with the two black guys on the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors than I do with some of the white folk because we share a lot of “character-istics” other than skin color.
The issue of diversity is tricky because if we focus on respecting diversity too much, we may ignore the need for some kind of unity in this village. For example, there are students in our school system whose primary language is other than English. So does respecting the fact that some kids come from families that speak Spanish at home mean we should have someone translating the lessons into Spanish in every class? Most of us, I assume, would say that’s going too far.
So how do we honor differences while still having enough cultural unity to move forward as a school or a village or a country and get something done? The word “compromise” comes to mind. Lately Congress has passed a couple of pieces of legislation in which the caucus leaders actually did not dig in their heels and demand “everything or nothing.” Can you believe Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner “dancing” together? Well, maybe that’s expecting too much, but they did compromise on legislation.
When I went to vote at one of our schools, I saw the letters C-H-A-R-A-C-T-E-R C-O-U-N-T-S taped to the wall. In a diverse society, not everyone will agree on what constitutes character, but the leaders in our school system recognized the need for some kind of unified culture in order for learning to happen.
In Oak Park, 900 people — students and parents — signed a petition criticizing the dress code at one of the middle schools. I empathized with the school administrators because they recognized that some kind of standard for clothing is necessary. Some kids will always push the boundaries of “common decency” just because they can, and they will therefore become a distraction. Whenever you set up a standard, you will necessarily “disrespect” one segment of a diverse population. Individual rights and the needs of a community, i.e. the common good, will sometimes be in tension.
Our mayor suffered a lot of ridicule for his statement about saggy pants. Whether you agree with his standards of proper dress or not, he was at least recognizing that a community needs some kind of unity regarding dress, speech, civil discourse and behavior just to function. For example, the parking lot for my condo exits onto Madison St. from an alley right near the busy corner of Circle and Madison. Because drivers waiting for the traffic light to change realize that getting out of the alley can be a challenge, four times out of five a driver will stop a car length behind the vehicle in front and wave, usually with a smile, to let me in.
It’s “the way we do things here.” That and a lot of other sometimes quirky things are part of our culture, and those who deviate find themselves losing friends. Diversity needs to adapt to the need for unity, and unity has to bend to the diverse ways of viewing the world in our multicultural little town.
Like a clock pendulum, most of us know when we’ve swung so far toward respecting diversity that we’ve lost unity of purpose and, conversely, when we’ve moved so far toward unity that we’re living in stifling conformity. Pundits and songwriters made fun of the ticky-tacky conformity of the 1950s and thereby helped open the door to the sometimes creative and sometimes demonic cultural chaos of the 1960s. Both decades had their unhealthy excesses. The trick, of course, is to recognize what constitutes dirty bath water and throw it out while saving the baby.
So good luck and blessings to the yet unborn Forest Park Diversity Committee. The issue you will be addressing is profound and at the core of our attempt to create a life-promoting community.
As a columnist, I tell you what I think. When I’m wearing the hat of a newspaper reporter, it’s my job to listen to what other people think and quote them accurately in the story I write. God gave us two ears and one mouth. I think that should tell us something. The first priority of the Diversity Committee, therefore, should be to set up many occasions for Forest Parkers to listen to each other, to do the tricky work of really hearing where each is coming from.
And, in the process, find some common ground to build on.