I have been working in the area of diversity, anti-bias, multi-cultural work, diversity, equity and inclusion long enough to have forgotten at least some of the names that have been given to this focus. And this moment in our history totally lends itself to our learning and introspection.

So here’s mine: when I was teaching and working as the Family Support Director at a private school in St Louis, I did quite a few workshops on diversity. One of the “stories” I heard others use and used myself in framing this work went like this: You are walking along a river and you notice a person struggling in the river. Of course, you run down and help that person out. But before you can do much else, another person appears, also in trouble. You wade back in and rescue that person. Perhaps that happens a couple more times and perhaps now others are helping as well.

Eventually someone says, “Hey, we need to go upstream and find out who is throwing people in the water and get them to stop?” And at that point, we segue into talking about various areas in which we need to work on diversity. We look at our work as being similar to making sure that no one is throwing anyone in the water. We talk about people of color and ways in which they have been kept from truly participating in the American “dream” of getting ahead. If this group was mostly teachers, we would talk about curriculum and about the books we read to our classes, and about whether the staff at the school looked like the families at the school. And hopefully people did reflect on what was said and what changes they could make in their schools.

But, back to the river we go. What I was doing was good: I pushed, nudged, encouraged folks to ask the “Who is throwing people into the river?” question not just the “Who needs rescuing” question. Historically we could talk about slavery, Jim Crow, poll taxes, segregated schools and more. And yet at that point in my diversity work, I was still totally missing the systemic question: Who and what told some people that they could throw some people in the river?

I think systemic racism is the answer. Systemic racism in the US has told white people they can design neutral sounding poll taxes or photo IDS to suppress voter turnout. Create social programs like Social Security that include provisions preventing farm laborers and domestic workers from participating. Support neighborhood covenants and real estate redlining that prevented African Americans from buying homes in those neighborhoods and then support local property taxes to fund local schools ensuring that the schools attended by white children are funded at much better levels than those schools attended mostly by children of color. The list goes on.

And making systemic changes is exactly what we need to be doing today. Certainly we need all children to see themselves in the books they read, the people they learn about in history, science, social studies etc and perhaps most importantly to learn working with people who look like themselves in all the various personnel at the school.

But we have other work to do as well: work that addresses the differences in median income and wealth, minimum wage, the work of policing, and the need for prison reform. As a white person, I also must work to understand my own white privilege and racism (my job is to work to be less racist this year than last for the rest of my life!) and also to support groups and individuals working to make our institutions and neighborhoods and schools more inclusive communities.

And as this work is done by individuals politicians and political parties, school districts, businesses, religious institutions, leaders in all walks of life, our country can truly be all it can be because the talents of all its people will be engaged and appreciated.

— Special to the Press Herald

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