July 2020

Column: Diversity and social justice: related, not redundant

Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch
By Stephanie Hightower, President and CEO of The Columbus Urban League
Guest Columnist
July 16, 2020

Many people from the community have reached out to me recently, seeking to understand, support and advance the cause of racial justice. I applaud and appreciate their candor and compassion.

But, in the course of many of these conversations, I often find a need to start our dialogue by revisiting basic concepts, establishing a shared language and mutually understood definitions. Clarity counts.

The most common misunderstanding I’ve encountered is the assumption that diversity and social justice are interchangeable. While both terms carry positive connotations, they’re neither synonyms nor antonyms. They’re related, not repetitive.

Diversity implies a concerted, overt effort to seek out and listen to voices and opinions unlike your own, ideas sown and incubated by different life experiences. It calls you to consult, respect and respond to people different from you.

Diversity stands out as a hallmark of thoughtful, successful leadership. Studies have long captured that companies headed by diverse boards excel. For example, industry analysts at McKinsey & Company just released their third in-depth study of corporate diversity. They conclude unequivocally that businesses led by more varied teams achieve greater profitability than those with more homogeneous teams by 36%.

Likewise, innovation entrepreneurs such as Ideo, the company Apple and other firms hire to improve their products, have long maintained that the best, most effective and thoughtful new concepts flow from a process that culls from myriad voices and talents.

Einstein said you can’t solve a problem with the same mindset that created it. Including people at the decision table who will challenge your assumptions and offer alternative ideas makes you smarter, more thoughtful, more resilient and more reflective of the world in which we live. Especially if you also create a safe space for people to be “real” and even to be wrong.

Social justice, however, extends beyond exposing yourself to other people, cultures and thinking. It means actively pursuing change for the greater good.

Martin Luther King Jr. championed social justice causes, advocating and protesting for voting rights, fairness in the criminal justice system and equity in economic opportunity. He understood that bigotry and discrimination diminish human potential — not just in one way or through one interaction but in a thousand ways, every day.

“One Thousand Cuts,” an aptly named virtual reality experience created three years ago, immerses participants in the constant undermining impacts of systemic racism. The experience puts you in the shoes of a young Black man: as a preschooler who is disciplined while his similarly-behaved white peers go unchecked: as a teen who returns home to find his distraught mother nearly frenzied because she thought he had an encounter with the police; and as a young man who watches helplessly as his dream job goes to a white candidate. Just like the ancient 1,000 cuts torture technique, each wound inflicts greater damage to the entire body.

It is the multitude of diminishing and limiting interactions that social justice seeks to reform. Social justice insists that putting young Black and brown children in poverty hurts — curtailing their health, their ability to learn and, most of all, their chance to dream. It refutes the notion that an unbridled free market alone offers equity in opportunity to everyone. It insists that we neither tolerate nor perpetuate failing schools and mass incarceration. Finally, it supports the concept that a more inclusive society, one in which everyone has a great chance to attain his or her full potential, is more just and more successful — for everyone.

One point seems unarguable: we cannot default to the old normal. The murder of George Floyd finally slammed shut an old and broken door. Though painful and uncomfortable, King’s “arc of justice” is the only path forward.

These stark realities and COVID-19 led your Columbus Urban League to double down on the work we’ve been doing for more than a century. We’re focusing on recovery or immediate emergency assistance to keep people in stable housing and Black businesses flourishing. We’ve rededicated ourselves to advancing a clear, determined agenda for real change. And, we’re cultivating resiliency: helping Black families optimize their earning power to collectively overcome poverty and achieve economic mobility.

We welcome all allies and we hope everyone agrees on our core strategies. We need greater diversity to spur personal and powerful interaction, and social justice to drive and direct collective action. The first is good for you. The latter is good for US.

Systemic racism must never be “normal” again.

Stephanie Hightower is president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League.

Download Article Here