Promoting equity and diversity is everyone’s job
The Henrico County school division is doing the right thing, but at least a month too late.
In the aftermath of a human and public relations disaster involving a racially and sexually charged video filmed in the locker room of Short Pump Middle School, the school district is creating an office of equity and diversity.
Lest any organization feel smug about Henrico’s predicament, they need to realize that the margin between a success story and a cautionary tale can be terrifyingly slender. In a rapidly changing nation, a failure to address and embrace diversity is risky business.
Yes, the mere utterance of the D-word is enough to set some eyes to rolling as folks complain about political correctness run amok. It seems as if our body politic is rejecting demographic and cultural changes as if they are transplanted tissue. But denial won’t stop our nation, our state and our region from experiencing the inevitability of change.
“It’s imperative that this be proactive rather than reactive,” says Jonathan Zur, president and CEO of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities.
When individual educators find themselves in reaction mode, “that’s often the first time they’re having a conversation about difference or respect or communication. And when you’re doing it at a time when it’s especially tense or feelings are hurt or people are on guard, that’s probably the worst time to be talking about those things.”
Diversity is not merely a feelgood concept. Adjusting to and embracing demographic, cultural and social shifts is difficult but essential work. School districts, governments, nonprofits and for-profit businesses do not have the luxury to sit this out.
Nazis and white supremacists are on the march. You cannot blame Hispanics and Muslims if they feel their existence in America is tenuous. Women
remain too often the victims of unequal pay and predatory behavior in the workplace.
Under the heading of progress, the appropriateness of monuments that glorify the Confederate cause is finally being called into question. And gay, lesbian and transgender individuals are attaining unprecedented heights (in politics) and rights (marriage). Virginia elected its second African-American lieutenant governor.
It’s a lot for students, teachers and parents to absorb. The pace of change can be exhilarating, dizzying, disorienting or dismaying, depending on your perspective. But if we’re going to progress instead of perpetuating the same old prejudices, we must be intentional. Enlightenment, equity and acceptance will not happen by osmosis.
Organizations that get out ahead of diversity are building an infrastructure that will make them much better equipped to deal with problems as they arise. Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities has worked with school districts that have installed diversity posts, including those in Virginia Beach, Lynchburg and in Northern Virginia, Zur said.
More than 14 percent of Chesterfield County’s student enrollment is Hispanic, the largest percentage in the region, according to the most recent membership numbers by the Virginia Department of Education. Chesterfield’s Hispanic enrollment of more than 8,700 students was greater than the Hispanic total in Henrico and Richmond schools combined.
In a nod to Chesterfield’s rapidly changing landscape — a Democratic gubernatorial candidate carried the county, believe it or not — the school district named Tameshia Grimes its director of equity and student support services.
As for the Richmond school district, where Hispanic students are the largest minority, “While we do not have a position with that specific title, RPS focuses on diversity and equity in a number of ways across the school district through our community partnerships and support from staff members in our student services and human resources departments,” said spokeswoman Kenita Bowers.
Zur said some diversity positions result not from a specific incident, but troubling disparities involving such issues as the meting out of discipline. “In other cases, a very public incident has motivated them to come up with this.”
“I think when this position is empowered and rolled out effectively, a few things show up,” he said. “One, that there’s an infrastructure that’s built for folks to receive the training and resources to be able to engage these conversations across the district. There’s someone who is the eyes and ears for these issues, so that when decisions are being made — about the school calendar, or a communication that’s going out, or a new policy that’s being rolled out — somebody is thinking about these things through the lens of diversity and inclusion. And the other side is, there is a place for folks to go when there are concerns and there is a recommendation.”
There’s a risk of boxing in diversity. “The downside is when the work ends up being very siloed,” he said. And he cautions that in Henrico, “I think there are people who are expecting the messiah. We need to be realistic about what one person and one office can do, particularly in the short term, as the district tries to move forward after a very public and very painful incident.”
On diversity, our saviors are in the mirror. Creating an inclusive environment is everyone’s job.
“I say a lot in VCIC programs that if you’re not being intentionally inclusive, then you run the high risk of being unintentionally exclusive,” Zur said.
Diversity issues are often not given the priority, time or focus they merit as organizations brush them aside and devote resources elsewhere. But, “the polarization and demographic shifts that exist in our current climate necessitate that these issues be centered in a way they have not been to date. I think the issues that are coming up are going to come up whether we acknowledge them.
“For me, it’s not a question of political correctness. It’s a question of meeting the needs of students and of the community,” he said. “It’s not just a nice thing to do. It’s really an imperative.”
In a rapidly changing nation, a failure to address and embrace diversity is risky business.