Pro­mot­ing eq­uity and di­ver­sity is every­one’s job

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - METRO - Michael Paul Wil­liams mwilliams@Times­Dis­patch.com

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.

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