Re: A meeting on diversity in svs-model schools

Kirsten Sutherland (DWDSUT7@UCHIMVS1.UCHICAGO.EDU)
Tue, 03 Sep 96 18:09 CST

Hi Michael! I want to add my selective memory of our meeting to yours.
One of the points that I thought you made so elegantly in the meeting
was in response to the concern of some that reaching out can be
construed as patronizing and self-serving. You said that at the heart
of an interest in diversity is the desire to form a relationship to the
individuals you are thinking of--to go beyond formality and surface
consideration to the act of expressing genuine interest in the people
who come to visit the school, attend a meeting, or sponsor an event as a
result of the efforts that you or your group would make to let them know
they are welcome. As I am writing this it sounds so general and
wishy-washy and that isn't the way it sounded when you said it. I
believe you gave the example of going to a Hispanic neighborhood and
just hanging out there, engaging in conversation, listening, talking and
learning---making something general and kind of scary (my words) into
something particular and potentially enlivening.

What does that have to do with diversity? Why treat people in less
powerful positions in society any differently? I like the answers you
and Alan have provided: their participation matters and recognizing this
means addressing the fact that for significant groups in our culture it
isn't a level playing field, equal is not equal is not equal. It is
worth finding ways of connecting with people who are different than we
are and who face more obsticles to their participation.

I came back to Chicago really energized by that discussion and it
enabled me not only to take a look at the diversity of the group we have
already, but to aim to strech farther. I find myself thinking about how
to reach out to the Hispanic and Chinese communities on the South Side
as well as the African-American communities that surround us. As I
start thinking in those terms I realize how little I know about Pilsen,
the Hispanic community, and how I don't even know where to start. In my
mind the task seems daunting. I know groups in the African-American
community that will put me in contact with people who have a higher
likelihood of being interested in the kind of school we are starting,
but even that knowledge comes from a lot of footwork, volunteering and
keeping my eyes and ears peeled. I often feel like I am searching for
common ground in foreign lands. It makes me aware of my vulnerabilites
to be walking in places that seem so different and so much closer to
poverty. Suddenly I am looking at the single, working African-American
mom from our group who has been priced out of our neighborhood (and out
of any reasonably safe neighborhood in the city) and can't find a job
that pays even a secretary's wage and realizing that I got really lucky
when I was down and out because I had connections in an almost all-white
institution (that had plenty of money to pay) that would give me a
chance. I certainly am not more qualified to do my job than she is, but
I had connections.

Prior to our conversation, I thought her circumstances were too bad, but
nothing I could do anything about. Now when I talked to her last week I
asked if she would like to know about job openings and sit down with 3-4
insiders to brainstorm about possibile steps to take. Nothing may come
of this directly, but then again now I'm thinking of all the doors I
could knock on and then I was more removed. What is my point--we should
all get jobs for people we feel sorry for? It is so easy to make this
into a goody-two-shoes thing. I don't feel like that. I feel like I am
looking for ways to build bridges out of commonalities and differences.
I don't know what our school group will support; it has not directly
come up in conversation and we aren't in a position to advertise soon.

What did I mean by building bridges out of commonalities and
differences? On our last day at the conference, I got up at 6:45 after
5 hours of sleep to go put food out on the collective table. For me, at
that moment it was an extra effort. In fact there were several moments
that required extra effort, there were people all around us with whom we
had historically stood on very different (sometimes conflicting) ground.
That morning, as with other times that streched me, it was important not
only to be on time, but to be early--to make the extra effort to
establish a committment to build a relationship to one another. It isn't
the food or the job help or any prescription in particular; it is being
there and making the effort to form a relationship where there was none
or there was very little. What does it mean to be there? For me, right
now, it means taking the time to look closely at what relationships
exist in my own personal life and the things I am involved with (the
school group especially) and asking: Are there ways that we could lay
the groundwork to welcome others who cannot feel welcome now? I hope
now and in the future we will take the time and effort necessary to
examine and re-examine our answer to that question. -Kirsten