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Coming to Terms with the ‘D’ Word

Coming to Terms with the ‘D’ Word
A bit of clarity comes with the one-year anniversary of Diverse.

Hoping for the best, expecting the worst. That’s one way of describing what I was feeling.

Here’s another: closing my eyes and holding my nose.  To say I was reluctant last summer as I prepared for the sea change that was to transform Black Issues In Higher Education to Diverse is probably an understatement. I had a list of excuses on standby to explain why I wasn’t ready for the change. We needed more time to plan and more correspondents, just to name two.

And then there’s that d-word: Diversity. Personally, I’m just not a terribly big fan. It seems overrated as a social virtue to me, particularly when compared to, say, justice.

But, like a good soldier, I saluted and followed the marching orders that came down from our publisher and CEO, longtime partners Frank Matthews and Bill Cox. I wrote the “End of an Era” piece for the final edition of Black Issues and I kept cranking out assignments. I also hunkered down next to my mailbox, like all the rest of our subscribers, to wait.

And the perspective of a year gives me the opportunity to say for the record — I was wrong.

Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe some sectors of our audience weren’t ready either. But Frank and Bill, you were right. The magazine was more than ready for a good strong breeze to rattle the blinds and sweep out the cobwebs.

This might not have been clear with Diverse’s first issue , our annual academic kickoff edition, and maybe not even with the second. But certainly by the third — our cover story on 150 years of racial integration at Berea College — I was sure. I loved the new format. Didn’t like it — loved it.

I have to wonder now why was I so anxious. I was worried that the magazine would lose a core part of its identity. As one longtime reader groused to me at last year’s John Hope Franklin Awards dinner: “All the Black things are being taken
away from us!”

At that conference, Dr. Tommy Lee Woon, then the associate dean of the Office of Pluralism and Leadership at Dartmouth College, described the challenge facing the magazine with his typical thoughtfulness and eloquence.

What you don’t want is to become “just another offering on the multicultural buffet,” said Woon, who recently announced that he is taking the post of dean of Multicultural Affairs at Macalester College. “Your task and your duty will be to make sure that ‘Blackness’ — Black experiences and history and political consciousness — continues to cohere as the center of all of your explorations of these other communities.”

With a year of issues behind us, I think it’s safe to say the magazine has done precisely that.

Certainly, features like Janell Ross’s “The Secrets of St. Agnes,” about a Black hospital with a shameful history of performing sterilizations on Black patients; or Ronald Roach’s “The Rosser Revolution,” about California State University-Los Angeles President James Rosser, were both great stories and reflected the style of journalism Black Issues had served up for 21 years.

But the format change also freed the staff to boldly go to places we had not been before. Lydia Lum’s “Swept Into the Background,” about the sufferings of a nearly invisible Vietnamese community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was a story we might have missed. Instead, we became virtually the only national publication to cover it.

Meanwhile, “Pens, Papers and Passports” allowed Shilpa Banerji to follow a Yale School of Management class on that school’s first-ever study trip to India. In “Accepted Into Education City,” Christina Asquith traveled to Qatar to report on A-list American universities setting up satellite campuses in that desert nation. Her story filled me with a longing to see and learn more about the Middle East.

Clearly, being Diverse has given our magazine a global edge we didn’t have before. And it’s allowed us to define, with the Black experience at the center, what that much-bandied-about term “diversity” actually means to people of color.

This is a critical distinction, so if you’ll forgive me, I’ll belabor the point a bit. How many opportunities are there in America for communities of color to encounter one another without the White gaze, White voices, White perspectives dominating the discussion?

Damned few.

In the pages of Diverse, however, people of color define the parameters of discussion and debate. We tell our own stories and we explore the differences and similarities between our experiences.

I see all this with the hindsight that is always, in such matters, 20-20. But the type of foresight that Frank Matthews and Bill Cox had in setting this course — that’s absolutely priceless.

Kudos to you, gentlemen! I can’t wait to see where our travels take the magazine in the coming year.

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