Tomorrow is the annual celebration of the Martin Luther King’s birthday, and as I sit here with my 7 year-old son, I wonder what Dr. King would make of aspects of our world today some 40+ years after his death.
Some parts of the world would like strikingly familiar. As chronicled in a trip to south Texas this past year – The Pace of Change: Uvalde, Texas 1953 – some parts of the nation look socially as they must have not only 40 years ago, but 60 or 70 years ago.
In what folks at the local grade school bus stop term the “bubble,” parts of the country like San Francisco, Austin, Madison, Boulder or Manhattan – named in part because life seems to be different from other parts of the U. S. – the mixture of ethnic / racial groups such as Irish, German, African-American, Italian, Asian, etc. is striking. “Blend” kids are common everywhere as different ethnic /racial heritage has infused some of the brightest, best looking kids imaginable.
You can slice this type of ethnic/racial make-up by anything you’d like at this site courtesy Valpariso University here. Even more striking, though, are the parts of the country (by county) where the number of folks who are not classified as “white” sits at 10% or less. Perhaps an ethnically diverse country as a whole, but in some parts, not so ethnically diverse.
We are all products of our environment: whatever is found and celebrated is seen as “normal,” whatever is absent is seen as weird or unusual. It’s true in society, and it’s true in businesses and organizations around the country.
Part of the trick to attracting and retaining a wider set for talent in business and organizations is to expand that range of “normal.” Once things are normalized to the “new” normal then things take a different bent and recalibrate to that new norm.
It usually takes, though, some smarts, thoughtfulness, and the ability to anticipate how an organization will grow and change downstream. Increasing diversity is nothing something that most organizations do well, and as Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson have chronicled in Nurture Shock, talking about racial diversity is something challenging for most parents like me who are white. This absence of dialogue with your kids is likely one reason why progress in working through racial issues in the country is spotty.
My 30 years of experience working with organizations has led me to believe that until you can hit certain thresholds that enable traction and comfort, diversity in whatever form you want to describe it (age, background, field of study, ethnicity, nationality) is a pretty dicey proposition. Just because you say you welcome “strangers” – be they women, Stanford grads, people of color, or left handers – doesn’t mean they feel welcome and part of the broader team. It takes better and deeper engagement. It’s not impossible to do – it just needs to be thoughtful, systematic and enduring.
Dr. King once said “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” And as I look at the byproduct of an African/Irish/Italian/German heritage that is my wonder of a son I suspect Dr. King would be impressed by the bright, socially engaging and loving kid that he is.
But even in “bubble” locales like San Francisco, operating in a color-blind and character rich fashion has his bumpiness.
I still remember our parent’s interview for kindergarten admission for our son at a well-known, established co-ed grade school in San Francisco near USF in 2008. The admissions director, an African-American woman, started out the interview by stating “I want your son in my kindergarten class.” Her last question – taken from our application narrative that spoke about our family that has two dads, multi-ethnic, and adoptive – was “Which part of our son’s ethnicity did we as parents honor when we took him to MOAD – The Museum of the African Diaspora?”
I found the question unbelievable: my good friend Gail, who grew up locally, is a graduate of Williams and Harvard, and is African-American had a better word: “obnoxious.” There was little doubt that this type of question would never have been posed if we’d written about taking him to the Blarney Stone.
And while we responded truthfully and answered “African,” I still burn at the memory of a question that showed interest only in his color, not my son’s character.
We were lucky to get admission offers from two other schools, both where diversity is more than check-the-box for ethnic / racial origin at the MOAD-asking school, and ended up at a school across the San Francisco bay in Corte Madera known as Marin Country Day School. While the school has been great in a number of ways, it’s also humble enough to be clear that it’s a continuing work in progress. The tone, though, starts at the top, and in the case of our son’s school that tone comes from Head of School Lucinda Lee Katz and it is one of creating a strong, progressive academic community of great learners supported by great teachers and a supportive broader community.
As I sat on a parent’s panel this past week for prospective applicants to MCDS, I smiled inside at the parents who were on the panel with me. Two of the parents have kids in my son’s class: one parent who happens to be Korean-American via Columbia University and one parent who happens to be African-American via MIT. Another panel parent was a woman who happens to be a good friend who is white who not only threw a baby shower for us after Traylor was born, but also took us baby goods shopping two weeks before her second child was born so we’d have a clue what to pick up when our son arrived.
All of my fellow panelists work hard, as we do, to make sure their kids are the types of kids you’d want your children to have as friends.
Dr. King would have been proud I suspect of the panel and some of the progress that’s been made. And probably startled that even in a place like San Francisco there is still much work to do.