“A Dream Reimagined”
Tuajuanda C. Jordan
Keynote delivered to NAVAIR
Lexington Park, Maryland
January 12, 2017
“I see in the future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and cause(s) me to tremble for safety of my country; corporations have been enthroned, an era of High Places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon prejudices of the People, until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic destroyed.”[i]
What a foreboding message! These words, however, were not spoken recently. They were written by President Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Colonel William F. Elkins, on November 21, 1864. Are they appropriate today more than 150 years later? I would say “Yes!”
We find ourselves, again, at a tipping point. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a piece entitled Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?[ii]. He described what he called the Triple Evil
- Poverty – which includes unemployment, homelessness, malnutrition, illiteracy, infant mortality, slums…
- Racism – which encompasses prejudice, apartheid, ethnic conflict, anti-Semitism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, ageism, discrimination against disabled persons, stereotypes…
- Militarism – war, imperialism, domestic violence, rape, terrorism, human trafficking, media violence, drugs, child abuse, violent crime
Many of these conditions plague our nation to this day. These issues are growing and continue to threaten our communities and our ways of life.
We have been in crisis mode – although at times barely perceptible – for at least a decade now. Prolonged and sustained crisis leads to stress and eventual uprising. We are in the midst of an uprising that, in some way, manifested itself or made itself more apparent during the election of the 45th president of the United States. People are tired of the status quo. The wealth and financial inequality in this country is greater now than it has ever been.
If we look at the trends from 1979 to 2012 on the graph and recently updated in 2016, we find that today approximately 1% of the US population controls more than 45% of the nation’s wealth.[iii] People are working harder and yet they have less to show for it in a material sense.
The masses have lost their patience with business as usual. And, who are these masses? Yes, we all are aware that in this county they are the racial and ethnic minority groups that have been underserved and underrepresented since the “founding Fathers” declared these States united. The masses include those who are physically and emotionally challenged as well as the neurologically diverse. And, recently, the masses incorporate the shrinking middle class that includes, to varying degrees, members of all of the aforementioned groups.
The masses grow weary yet they continue to work hard because they “drank the Kool-Aid” and sincerely believe in the American Dream and in the Melting Pot theory. They believe that this country, this place referred to as the land of the free and the home of the brave will be a place where their hard work will pay off in the end. They believe in Dr. King’s Dream – that they, in this period of the 21st century, will be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. Surely we have reached that point of acceptance and respect, haven’t we? Did we not elect a person of color as the president of these United States in 2008 and then re-elect him in 2012? Does this not mean that we are progressive? That we don’t see color? That everybody is treated fairly and the same? NO.
A series of incomprehensible killings that started in Miami Gardens, Florida of an unarmed youth walking in his neighborhood wearing a hoodie, and approached a crescendo in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Los Angeles, California; and Cleveland, Ohio suggests that we are not all the same; that we should not expect to be treated fairly and equitably. The economic inequality, the social injustice observed by most and experienced by many in this country of late has enlightened our youth, our young adults to the realities of the world. They find themselves grappling with what to do.
What has transpired on college and university campuses? Students’ eyes are now wide open to or, perhaps, they see with greater clarity, the social injustices and inequities of the world in which we live. During the height of the Civil Rights movement amidst the protests, students found their voices and decided to take a stand – by sitting down at lunch counters – against the social injustices that were occurring. Dr. King said, “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether you are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, MS; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”[iv] End quote.
The same can be said about what has happened on campuses across the country in this period of the 21st century. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether you are in Ferguson, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; or Charlotte, North Carolina – the cry is always the same: “We want to be respected and to be treated equitably.”
I must admit that I am delighted –for the most part – to see the activism that is now occurring on our campuses. You know, the Millennials, the students we have in college right now, have been described as armchair activists, i.e., they “talk-the-talk” but there isn’t much of the “walk-the-walk” in them. The recent campus events suggest that those assessments need to be re-examined. The students we have on our campuses right now are activists. I believe they just needed something to speak to them, something worthy of their time and attention. I welcome their compassion, energy, and desire to change the world for the betterment of all.
The Black Lives Matter movement took hold and provided an initial platform for students to engage in nonviolent activism – something that hasn’t been observed at this level since the 1960’s and early ‘70’s. A diverse body of students, and now many others across the country, have started to speak out and speak up about social injustices and inequities, not just inequalities. Those who have found or are finding their voices are changing the course of America again.
How do we, today’s leaders and administrators, create environments where these diverse individuals, collectively and individually, can be successful – not just according to our present-day goals and expectations – but in the future? How can we create spaces for them not just to succeed but to thrive?
I made reference earlier to the concept of America being a melting pot, a place where people come and assimilate. Some believe that with assimilation comes peace and prosperity, an acculturation to the traditions and mores of the dominant group. Well, after a while, the balance will change, must change, if you believe in the laws of nature. We can try to suppress it for a while but the inevitable will eventually happen and, as Sam Cooke sang way back in the 1960’s, “a change is gonna come.”[v] In due time, the dominant group will become less dominant – either by way of a decline in numbers or a decline in power or a decline in the effectiveness of whatever forces they use to move that society forward. When that happens, unrest develops; entropy becomes a dominant force within the system and chaos ensues.
When it comes to societies and people, I don’t believe in the Melting Pot phenomenon. I am a firm believer in Gumbo societies: you can recognize each piece individually and appreciate it. Together, however, the pieces work to make something so rich, so satisfying that you can’t imagine the gumbo without each component part working together to create magnificence! And though changes happen, they are effectively small disruptions and a new equilibrium is restored relatively quickly and easily. And, to carry the scientific analogy just a tad further, we know that heterogeneous populations, diverse populations are stronger and more resilient than homogeneous ones.
How do we make our spaces welcoming to a diverse population? How do we embody the concept of inclusive diversity? How do we lift every voice? This is such a challenging question.
I recently read an article in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology that discussed strategies for creating an inclusive environment in which employees are encouraged to bring their authentic selves to work.[vi] The study’s conclusion is that instead of an organization focusing the best of its energy on meeting a quota or holding a certain number of diversity training sessions, the goal should be to infuse a culture of acceptance. At the College, we have several work groups comprised of faculty, staff, and students all working on different aspects of inclusive diversity. We recently hired an administrator of inclusive diversity and equity charged with coordinating the groups’ efforts and finding ways to help us to sustain the work to the point where it really becomes integrated into our institutional core values. It is not until this occurs that we can say we have embodied our ethos known as The St. Mary’s Way.
Inclusive diversity requires a certain degree of comfort with error, which can be hard for some people to swallow. A truly diverse environment requires employee support as well as continuous learning and the acknowledgement that one does not know everything about various cultures, lifestyles, and backgrounds. It requires asking questions about the unknown and realizing that even with explanations, there are some concepts from other cultures that you may not be able to fathom or empathize with completely. Nevertheless, it remains important to respect the differing viewpoints and allow all voices to be heard.
Several themes that are useful in creating a culture of inclusive diversity in an academic or work environment include the following:[vii]
- Diversity is a central, enduring, and distinctive organizational attribute
- Accommodation should be the rule and not the exception, creating openness to change and efficacy for change efforts
- Respecting difference is a necessity not a nicety, which translates into openness to others and the development of interpersonal competence
- Learning is continuously required, which translates into openness to error and efficacy for continuous improvement
- The physical structure of the workplace and the organizational structure and policies reinforce the centrality of inclusion and creates person-environment fit
- No place is completely immune to challenges to managing differences
This latter point has been driven home on our campus. There are days when I feel that the more we do the more there is to be done. Whenever you believe you have done things to lift up everyone or at least provide better access and resources to the entire community, invariably there will be some feeling left out of the conversation. But, we cannot, as Dr. King said, “wallow in the valley of despair.”[viii] End quote. We must, instead, press on to the summit of hope.
Last month, Inside Higher Ed published an article that projects the changed demographic and its effect on institutions of higher education and the workforce.[ix] Overall, there will be a decrease in the number of high school and college graduates, and the pool of students are expected to become “less white, more Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander, and increasingly located in the South.” According to experts, these projections “represent a new challenge to the status quo at institutions, one that points toward increased efforts in recruiting minority students and [low-income] students – and keeping them on campus.”
So what does this mean for us? It means that we “need to increase pathways to college [and the workforce] for minority students” and effectively retain these students. Deborah Santiago, co-founder and chief operating officer at a Washington-based nonprofit notes, “Some could see this demographic and geographic shift as a threat to their status quo… It is.”[x] End quote. In order to survive in the long-term, it is imperative that we increase our efforts to recruit qualified, underrepresented individuals from all groups into our organizations.
When increasing diversity within our organizations, we also need to ensure that diversity does not fade as we move up the corporate ladder. Many organizations boast of successful efforts to diversify and they corroborate their statements with aggregate data. When these data are parsed, however, it becomes apparent that diversity at the lower levels is not mirrored at the senior levels. Research shows that both the federal government and the academy have a lot more work to do to create a genuine culture of equity. At St. Mary’s College, we are working to ensure that our diversity efforts for faculty and staff permeate every level. This requires commitment, incentives, and oversight to get the job done.
With all of the hype regarding diversity perhaps some may start to feel diversity fatigue. Know that diversity is more than a buzzword. True diversity “permeates every aspect of the [organization] and is widely collaborative.”[xi] It relies on more than “chief diversity officers, administrators in multicultural affairs and ethnic cultural centers, and [employees] of color.” To create a true culture of inclusive diversity, we need to think in terms of relationships as opposed to events and activities.
True inclusive diversity takes sustained effort from everyone and benefits everyone. Inclusive diversity sparks innovation and creativity. It yields prosperity, health, and wellness. It produces a more just and humane society where we all have liberty and can live free. When we allow this to happen, when we work to intentionally build an inclusively diverse society, we can all stand up and say with pride and conviction:
“My country ‘tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing
Land where my fathers died
Land of the pilgrim’s pride
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”[xii]
And so let freedom ring from the banks of the St. Mary’s River
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped mountains of western Maryland
Let it ring from the crowded by-ways of our inner cities, from the farmland to the airfield
Let it ring.
And when this happens, we will know that the long arc of the moral universe has indeed made it to justice. And that we, as a nation, are at a better place.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you on this special day. I look forward to continued collaboration with NAVAIR in which we can leverage our strengths for the good of our citizens and the future workforce.
[i] Lincoln, A. (1864, November 21). Letter to Colonel William F. Elkins [personal communication]. Retrieved from www.ratical.org.
[ii] King, M.L. (1967). Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
[iii] Saez, E., & Zucman, G. (2014). Wealth inequity in the U.S. since 1913: Evidence from income tax data. National Bureau of Economic Research.
[iv] King, M.L. (1968, April 3). I’ve been to the mountaintop [speech]. Memphis, TN. Retrieved from kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu.
[v] Cooke, S. (1964). A change is gonna come [Recorded by Sam Cooke]. On Shake [gramophone record]. Hollywood, California: RCA. Victor.
[vi] Groggins, A., & Ryan, A. (2013). Embracing uniqueness: The underpinnings of a positive climate for diversity. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, (86), 264 – 282.
[vii] Groggins, A., & Ryan, A. (2013). Embracing uniqueness: The underpinnings of a positive climate for diversity. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, (86), 264 – 282.
[viii] King, M.L. (1963, August 28). I have a dream [speech]. Washington, DC. Retrieved from www.cfr.org.
[ix] Selzer, R. (2016, December 6). High school graduates to drop in number and be increasingly diverse. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com.
[x] Selzer, R. (2016, December 6). High school graduates to drop in number and be increasingly diverse. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com.
[xi] Forum: What does a genuine commitment to diversity look like? (2016, May 6). Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com.
[xii] Smith, S. (1917). America: My country ‘tis of thee [Recorded by Arthur Middleton] [sound recording]. United States. Retrieved from www.loc.gov.