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Engaging Diversity

by Decker Ngongang

September 6,2007

Renowned Harvard political scientist Dr. Robert Putnam recently presented a pretty interesting study on diversity and reduced civic engagement. This is interesting for those of us who are proponents of diversity. In his work he states that diversity in and of itself doesn’t solve the ills of a society. Instead the “default” diversity many of us preach only exacerbates social mistrust and conflict.

The truth, Putnam found, is that the greater the amount of multiculturalism and diversity in a society, the lower the level of civic engagement and shared sense of community cohesiveness.

In Charlotte, this has never been more evident as our community continues to rank near the bottom in social mistrust among diverse groups and within areas of homogeneity.

In a city like Charlotte where so much changes everyday and where we are at such an infantile point in our growth, our diversity is going to work against us if we don’t develop within our diversity advocacy an organic culture of engagement that will allow diversity to become intentional.

As a graduate of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools open school system (Irwin, Piedmont, West Charlotte), my peers and I have long understood that it isn’t just physical diversity that makes integration work. Sticking black, white, rich and poor together isn’t inherently “justice” for we must have within this “diversity” a culture of engagement that uses the diversity present to supplement the conversations, interactions and learning that will help each person better understand others and therefore allow for an organic understanding of community void of social stigma.

At West Charlotte High School, we volunteered together, we partied together, we learned together and, more importantly, we were in a broader West Charlotte community that supported this communalism. To our parents, teachers, and our peers, diversity wasn’t a statistic for us; it was a culture whereby we learned about the world through the lives and experiences of our classmates.

We had West Charlotte Lion pride to unite us in high school. What overarching spirit do we have in Charlotte that can unite us to move past our “camps” to engage each other in our difference? We need more opportunities to engage across ethnic lines that are genuine and not fabricated horse and pony shows. In Charlotte, the same white people know the same people of color, yet we still have these tiny separate systems that run this community. We have black camps, white camps, Democrat camps and Republican camps and within those are more subsets, which further separate us from genuine engagement.

The success of our community will not come from a mayor initiative or from any city executive. It will come from us as citizens participating in public life. We have a responsibility not only to sit next to our neighbors and those who don’t look like us, but as community members we must find ways to engage, dialogue and learn from others so that we may better appreciate what individuality we bring to the table.

Let’s stop celebrating “diversity.” Instead, let’s celebrate “diverse engagement.” Engaging diversity isn’t a brand, it is a way of living, a responsibility of our democracy and it isn’t easy. My friend Mike Whitehead likes to say, “Live intentionally.” Now more than ever it is important that we learn how to avoid the hunkering down that permeates our community and live intentional diversity. Charlotte is full of people that are afraid of each other. Just as children overcome fear through knowledge and experience, so must we as members of a community destroy our subconscious stereotypes and judgments through thoughtful dialogue with our neighbors.

Intentional diversity isn’t easy. It causes all of us to take each and every person we meet at face value – not allowing us to decide good and evil by one’s social construct. Charlotte is a philanthropic city, we are diversity, and I hope in this next decade of progress we will become more empathetic. The “other” person next to us or across the city is not that different from us. We can begin to engage and develop a sense of empathy, and become an intentionally diverse city with a true sense of community cohesiveness.

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