You can’t win if you only work with people like yourself

"Be different" by Vermin Inc. on flickr.comI’ve just finished Bury the Chains, an excellent history of the British abolitionist movement-I highly recommend it.

One of the themes of the book was the odd alliance between two of the movement’s leaders: William Wilberforce and John Clarkson.

John Clarkson was an organizer, and agitator, and a bit of a radical. He was inspired by the French revolution. He was not satisfied with the inequality of British society, for Clarkson the institution of slavery was the most offensive of the injustices.

Wilberforce was very different. In most ways he was conservative. As a wealthy man himself, he thought that society worked well (except for the problem of slavery), and he was repulsed by the French revolution and other examples of popular unrest.

Despite their political differences, Wilberforce and Clarkson needed each other.

Wilberforce alone would have not been able to mobilize popular pressure and galvanize the public against slavery.

Clarkson alone would not have been able to maneuver the House of Lords and actually get legislation passed to ban the slave trade.

Who are you working with who seems totally different from you? How can you find new allies for social transformation?

The danger of homogenaity

Photo by Daveybot on FlickrJust a quick follow up to my post on who to invite: it’s downright dangerous to have decisions made by people who all think the same.

First, their decisions won’t have the strength of multiple viewpoints.

Second, the decisions will face more opposition when they come to the larger group.

I saw this recently when the City of Ann Arbor was considering creating a greenway through the city. In good municipal fashion, they convened a greenway committee.

Who signed up to be on the greenway committee? The people who are passionate about a greenway!

Now I’m not a greenway advocate, so when I look at their decision, it doesn’t have legitimacy to me, because I don’t think it really looked at the issue in a comprehensive way.

Another example: a local Catholic parish used to have a Life Committee (or some such group). In Catholic social teaching, the sanctity of life leads the Catholic Church to oppose many things, not just abortion and euthanasia but also war, poverty, and the death penalty.

But the Life Committee just cared about abortion.

They were a faction.

And they lost legitimacy for it.

So, if you want to create a faction that will promote a narrow perspective (and there is value in this, to be sure), by all means, only seek out the hard-core fringe of people who would volunteer themselves to be on that committee.

But if you want sound and balanced decisions that will have more legitimacy in the wider community, then you have a harder task ahead. Then you need to recruit not just people who already agree with you and think like you, you have to recruit people with different perspecitves.

And then the hard work begins…

you have to respect those different perspectives.

Who should you invite to collaborate?

One of the things that I like about You Don’t Have to Do it Alone is that it invites us to be thoughtful about the things we often decide on auto-pilot.

For example, who we invite to participate in a project?

Often the answer is “whoever we can get.”

You don’t have to however challenges us to:

  • include more people
  • consider what types of people you need to include
  • consider when in the project you need what types of collaboration.

In terms of the considering the types of people to involve, the authors identify six categories of people to include:

  • people who care;
  • people with authority and responsibility;
  • people with information and expertise;
  • people who will be personally affected;
  • people with diverse points of view;
  • people who are considered troublemakers

I have a board member who is an expert at this. She has an excellent grasp on the fact that difficult decisions need to include a variety of people: people with different perspectives, people who know the topic, people who can get it done.

She also knows that you can sometimes prevent a lot of opposition from troublemakes by getting their involvement as the start. That way they aren’t opposing you at the finish.

And as a bonus, you often get a better, more informed decision by including them.

Bringing to the table or moving the table

Organizers, marketers, and others often say “we need to get [insert group name here] around the table.”

They assert that they need lawyers, people of color, youth, retirees, Muslims, atheists, farmers, CEOs, midwives, three-toed gnomes, or whatever, and then go off in to recruit that constituency.

Often this is well intentioned. Sometimes it is successful. And indeed, it is an important part of  making our community institutions more representative and accountable.

But it isn’t always enough to drag people “to the table.”

Sometimes you have to move the table to them!

It isn’t enough to tell a vulnerable or oppressed community, “come over here,” when “coming over here” means leaving the security of an established community to enter a setting that is unknown and possibly hostile.

This is a common barrier in white anti-racist work. Liberal whites will say, with every good intention, “our door is open, we just don’t understand why they won’t join us.” Of course, there are valid reasons why people of color would be skeptical. Many people of color have seen to many cases where they have been used as props to make white people feel good, where they have been forced to explain issues of diversity of racial justice, or where their experiences of racism have been dismissed.

Even if your group is different, they have a reason to be skeptical.

ICPJ has a lot of table moving ahead of us.

For example, we have had only limited success in our efforts to include the Arab and Muslim communities. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that many Arab and Muslim Americans recognize that in a post 9/11 America, they are vulnerable to political persecution. Arab and Muslim Americans, especially immigrant Arab and Muslim Americans, are often subjected to greater scrutiny, greater mistrust, and greater surveilance.

In this setting, a reasonable coping strategy for them is to keep their heads down, be good citizens, and say out of controversy.

ICPJ isn’t designed to stay out of controversy. So, we’re going to have a harder time recruiting Arabs and Muslims unless we move the table.

One way we’re doing that is with this year’s ICPJ Annual Meeting. We’re featuring a speaker about the Liberty and Justice for All campaign dealing with due process rights for immigrants. This is both a good issue for ICPJ to deal with and it is a way to be in solidarity with vulnerable immigrant communities.

Hopefully it will move us closer to being more welcoming for Arabs, Muslims, or Latin@s. Even if it doesn’t, it’s the right thing to do.

Moving the table is hard work, but it’s better than keeping the table on inhospitable ground.

Diversity is divine

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying The Tent of Abraham, which looks at the story of Abraham through Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives and explores how it can be a tale of peacemaking.

One thing that struck me is the discussions of the world’s diversity in the book.

For example, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center explores how the story of the tower of Babel is a story of rejecting a centralized imperial globalism (as Sumeria was trying to create at the time) in favor of diverse grassroots communities each with their own tongue and customs.

(The folks at We Are Everywhere would love this interpretation).

Likewise, the Qur’an celebrates human diversity. It says:

‘O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.’ (49:13a)

And of course the Baha’i faith has beautiful writings about the value of diversity.

If the flowers of a garden were all of one color, the effect would be monotonous to the eye; but if the colors are variegated, it is most pleasing and wonderful. The difference in adornment of color and capacity of reflection among the flowers gives the garden its beauty and charm. Therefore, although we are of different individualities, different in ideas and of various fragrances, let us strive like flowers of the same divine garden to live together in harmony. (‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 24)

There is a tendency in this world to promote our way as the one and true way, to declare our people as the only good people, and our thoughts as the only credible thoughts.

These passages and interpretations remind us that the glory of creation is that there are many peoples, many perspectives, and many things to enjoy.

And this is a good thing.

Politcally, then, when policies or prejudices exclude some people or leave some groups out, then we are all diminished. To use the Baha’i example, we have lost flowers from our garden.

That’s why efforts to dismantle racism, to actively recruit diverse candidates, and to make sure that everyone has access to opportunity are so important.

We are all created by God, with all of our blessed diversity. We are all God’s people. We all share God’s earth.
And to make sure that all God’s people have access to all the bounty God’s earth is to do God’s work of justice.