• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


What Should Graduates of Diversity Programs Be Good At?

Learning to talk across lines of difference as a way to build up a diverse democracy.

September 18, 2019

I run a diversity organization -- and spend hundreds of hours every year working with a range of campus diversity programs -- and here’s a question I think about all the time: What do I hope students get good at as a result of being part of our initiatives?

Let’s imagine the answers that people in other programs might give.

If you run a nursing program, you hope that your students get good at diagnosing illnesses, implementing effective treatments and encouraging patients and communities to practice wellness so they get sick less often and live better lives.

If you run an architecture program, you hope that your graduates can design buildings that meet the needs of a range of clients and communities and do it across contexts. They should know a lot about design, a lot about building materials and a lot about cultural contexts (housing for cultures with lots of extended families is different than housing for cultures with lots of singles). They should keep in mind things like the threat of earthquakes and the impact of a changing climate.

You can do this thought exercise -- what should my students be getting good at? -- in virtually any field, from business to medicine to law.

A lot of these fields use case studies as a way to present their students with a real-world problem that they have to solve. Putting students in the driver’s seat (pretend you are a CEO or a doctor or a judge facing XYZ situation -- how would you handle it?) forces them to problem solve and to reflect on the skills they need to master and the knowledge they need to acquire to be leaders in their chosen field. It demonstrates what they need to get good at learning, and what faculty and staff need to get good at teaching.

Here’s an example of a case study in diversity work:

You are organizing an Interfaith Day Against Hunger and Homelessness in Washington, D.C. You have 1,000 people coming from 50 different houses of worship -- 10 traditions represented, including secular humanism. There is a bill before Congress to greatly increase funding for housing and homelessness programs. It could make a huge difference for poor people.

The week before your scheduled lobbying effort, violence breaks out between Hindus and Muslims in India, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. You know that at least half of the groups that have signed up to come to your lobbying day -- which you’ve been organizing for a year -- will be affected by these global issues. You are afraid that some won’t come. That there will be arguments on the buses between people from diverse faith communities about global interfaith violence rather than strategizing about domestic hunger relief. Maybe other houses of worship will take sides. Maybe -- God forbid -- there will be an argument right there in the halls of Congress.

So, what’s your next move?

Every once in a while, when I present a case like this on a campus, someone will say, “You can’t ask oppressed people to deal with situations like that.”

Here’s the thing: there are students from challenging backgrounds and minority identities in every field and practice. Can you imagine an accountant saying she can’t do your taxes because she’s too oppressed? Or a nurse saying that he won’t administer a flu shot because of his marginalization? Or a restaurant saying, sorry, the chef is too oppressed to prepare your meal?

Engaging diversity such that it becomes pluralism (respect for diverse identities, relationships between different communities, a commitment to the common good) is really important work. It is mostly about developing the knowledge and skills to engage real-world situations and make them better. Every part of American life is getting more diverse and complex -- summer camps, elementary schools, nursing homes, companies, athletic leagues, hospitals, politics, everything.

Figuring out how all people in these spaces feel included and interact productively is enormously challenging. It takes a vision, a knowledge base, a skill set -- the kinds of things that you learn in well-designed, rigorous college programs.

I had the opportunity to meet with directors of various diversity centers at Northeastern University recently and left inspired. These were people who wanted to provide spaces for students from a variety of backgrounds to feel comfortable and included on campus and also develop the skills to engage positively and productively across lines of difference.

Diversity isn’t rocket science -- it’s harder. I for one am grateful that excellent faculty and staff at American colleges and universities are taking on the challenge.

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Eboo Patel

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