Diversity Is an Action Verb
By Lisa Maria Grillo
It appears that a recurring goal of colleges and universities is the embracement of cultural diversity. There is a tendency among a number of faculty members, however, to view cultural diversity as a conceptual or philosophical ideal. As I think about how institutions may best embrace cultural diversity, I am reminded of the album title “Love Is an Action Verb,” by Helane Fontaine, a Washington, D.C., jazz vocalist.
The title precisely and succinctly captures the way in which I think we should approach diversity — not as a concept but as an action. When we embrace diversity, we are honoring and respecting men and women whose life experiences may differ from our own but are equally as important. It means that we listen to, seek to understand and validate others’ points of view and cultural experiences. It requires that we step outside of the constructs of our own cultural realities and self-perceived worlds to freely view life through another’s lens. We are all members of communities outside of higher education, communities in which cultural diversity is often not a lived reality. But we, in the act of embracing diversity, must become constant seekers of cultural knowledge. We must realize that in order to forge relationships with students, colleagues, neighbors and communities, we must be able to better understand them culturally.
Honoring and embracing diversity challenges us to explore our own personal beliefs about diversity and different cultural and ethnic groups.
It requires us to consciously recognize the ways in which these beliefs shape our behavior toward others. The genuine acceptance of diversity always begins with the self. We have to acknowledge the feelings of discomfort that we hold, confront these feelings and then challenge ourselves to open our minds. This is the first step. In a more practical sense, it also means that we must become more cognizant of the powerful connotations of the words we use to name groups. We should ask ourselves as faculty members whether words such as “minority,” “disadvantaged,” or “needy” have a place in our personal and professional discussions, documentation, pedagogy or research.
By demonstrating that we are not afraid to look at the dominant culture’s theories, models and concepts with a critical eye, we are also demonstrating that we are committed to diversity. Our goal, then, is to dissect mainstream constructs to determine if they are culturally compatible with or applicable to the multiple cultures of the individuals and groups we serve. Embracing diversity also encourages us to seek research initiatives whose ultimate aim is to empower cultural groups, and not feed into or support existing research that furthers the subjugation of culturally diverse individuals or groups.
It is also critical that we include all groups in our discussions regarding diversity, regardless of their prevalence within a particular community. For example, Black Americans are few in number in the state of New Mexico. Nevertheless, they are a community which has unique cultural experiences and needs and whose perspectives may lend to overall improvement of institutions and the larger society.
In pursuit of authentic cultural diversity, our long-term goal as faculty members should be to fully integrate the value of diversity into the fabric of our organizational culture. Once we have accomplished this, we will see that we no longer have to actively embrace cultural diversity, it just simply will be who we are.
— Dr. Grillo is assistant professor in the department of educational leadership and organizational learning at the University of New Mexico.
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