The value of diversity

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By John Pawlak

“The challenges and opportunities that confront Mississippi and the nation demand creative and innovative responses if we are to realize the potential that the future holds for our citizens. Our best hope for increased prosperity, health and quality of life for all lies in our ability to take advantage of the full range of talents and perspectives available to us.”

Those were the opening words to the “2010 Diversity Conference” held on March 24 at Mississippi State University to address Mississippi’s desire to enhance its global competitiveness through diversity and education. Good words.  Challenging words.  

Perplexing words given that just two weeks prior to the conference, the Itawamba County School Board in Mississippi announced that it was canceling the upcoming prom in order to prevent a gay student from bringing a same-sex date to the event.  

The school board then openly encouraged parents to organize a private prom that would exclude same-sex partners.  One has to admire the sheer courage displayed by the school board and the parents for the enormity of their dedication towards supporting diversity and education.  

A similar story of intolerance was played out in Thies, Senegal, where a mob stormed a cemetery, dug up the body of Madieye Diallo, kicked and spit on his corpse, and then dumped Madieye’s body on the doorsteps of the home of his parents.  The reason for this madness?  Madieye was gay.

Homophobic violence, whether it be the extreme measure of desecrating a dead body or that of a school board’s efforts to ostracize a single student, is wrong.  There’s no real difference between the two. Bigoted hatred is just plain wrong.  And stupid.

All across our nation (well, excluding Mississippi anyway), more and more people are rallying around diversity and preaching inclusion.  So what is diversity?  What value does it have?  And where does this value lie?  In the workplace, in society, in churches, in schools, or even in the home?

Diversity is the recognition of differences between people - their beliefs, their cultures, genders, cultures, ages, ethnicity, appearances, races, economic backgrounds, learning styles, religions, and sexual orientations.  

It spans these and many other aspects of the human condition.  Given any two people, there will always be differences. Diversity asks the simple question — Do you use those differences to keep people apart or to bring them together?

At a national level, even as we pride ourselves as being “the melting pot of the world”, we simultaneously pride ourselves as being a nation in which different cultures and views and traditions combine synergistically to render the whole greater than the sum of the parts. We strive for common values and principles and recognize that our differences make us strong.

People who think (Mississippi excluded of course) immediately recognize that diversity benefits everyone, that the inclusion of different backgrounds, different cultures, different family structures, and even different values leverages the best of us all, forges group strength and allows people’s individualities to enhance and bolster creative thought.  This nation has come a long ways and will continue to do so.  Diversity will be an important constituent of our future success.

It is with great pride that I tell others that I live in Los Alamos. Our community celebrates “Diversity Week” every year at the high school and supports a person’s right to be who they are.  We are not our stereotypes.  We are individuals and citizens of a country that proclaims to be the world’s leader in freedom.  

What better way to do this than to acknowledge the value in all people?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not trying to imply that the State of Mississippi has an inherent problem with the fair treatment of others.  After all, they did ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, right?  (Well, yeah, they did ... but not until March 16, 1995).  

Neither would I ever attempt to present any reasons to criticize the educational principles of the state of Mississippi or to make them look foolish or bigoted.  I don’t have to do that.  They’re extremely adept at doing all that without my help.

No, I’m not trying to ridicule anyone.  What I would like to do is convince a few people that diversity does offer value, that acceptance of others is inherently a good thing that advances our society.  

But the fact is, I’m not articulate enough to forge words so powerful or so convincing.  Others far more eloquent than I said it best many years ago.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Except of course in Mississippi and Senegal.