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Columbia Business Monthly

Diversity Education Is Everyone’s Responsibility

Feb 08, 2018 09:13AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Peggy Barnes-Winder
Director of Diversity Education and Professor of Sport Professions at Newberry College

Each of us is responsible for educating our children about diversity and inclusivity. I have been a professor for 27 years at Newberry College, where I also serve as director of diversity education. Despite all these years as an educator, I find some of the greatest lessons I have learned have come from my fourth-grade daughter, Rielly.

While her class has studied American history, Rielly has struggled to understand the concept of slavery and the rationale for why, not so long ago, black kids and white kids could not play together as social equals. By her way of thinking, the idea of slavery or segregation is unconscionable.

On one hand, the fact that advances within a single generation have rendered these ideas so alien to my daughter speaks volumes about how far we have come as a nation. On the other hand, the fact that we continue to confront negativity about our differences says a great deal about how far we have yet to go.

That is why I believe diversity education is so important, and why each of us must make an intentional effort to understand the relevance of diversity and inclusion.  

In the 1954 court case Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, effectively unraveling the untenable “separate but equal” policies that had created disparity between black and white schools.

Since that historic ruling, we have worked hard to move beyond simply desegregating to integrating. Desegregation required us to break down barriers erected over many decades by policies and practices that marginalized minority populations. Integration requires us to bring together the best of what each of us has to offer to create a more unified whole.

I want my daughter to understand that, yes, we have come a long way; our progress has been hard won, but our journey is far from over.

For that matter, simply talking about diversity in our current environment can be a challenge, but when it comes to race relations, social justice, and equality, we cannot avoid the conversation because of the tension that often surrounds this topic of discussion.

Diversity is an increasingly complex matter revolving around not just race and ethnicity, but national origin, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, age, and ability.

Our contemporary notion of diversity can be very complex; however, the simplest response to that complexity is the simple act of treating everyone with respect. It is the very best start to beginning to appreciate our differences and celebrate what unifies us.

In his book Diversity Matters, Dr. Pete Menjares, senior fellow for diversity with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, noted, “Every human being has been created in the image of God and thus has inherent worth and dignity.” Diversity education reminds us to approach one another in the spirit of mutual respect, with a willingness to listen and a desire to understand.

In the classroom, diversity benefits everyone. Research shows us that school culture and climate directly impact the success of students, especially students in earlier grades. Dr. Aaron Thompson and Dr. Joe Cuseo make a case for diversity education in their book Diversity and the College Experience. They argue diversity matters because it:

  • Expands worldview. For many students, school may be their first and only opportunity to interact with people from different cultures and backgrounds.
  • Enhances social development. In their innocence, children usually enjoy interacting and building relationships with children who may be very different from themselves.
  • Prepares individuals to function in a global society. As they move into the “real world,” students will work with people from many different walks of life and must learn to navigate those differences effectively. 
  • Supports knowledge and creativity. As students interact and engage in different experiences, they learn about issues or concerns from multiple perspectives.
  • Builds self-awareness. Learning about the differences of others gives students greater awareness of what defines them as an individual.

I wholeheartedly agree with these observations by Thompson and Cuseo about college students, but contend that these ideas are relevant and applicable at all levels of education.

In my role as director of diversity education at Newberry College, I strive to provide my campus community with programming that emphasizes appreciation of and respect for diversity and inclusivity for ALL individuals.

We need to celebrate diversity and inclusivity, not because it is something we should do, but because it is the right thing to do – for ALL of us.

Peggy Barnes-Winder is the director of diversity education and professor of Sport Professions at Newberry College, which recently was honored for its commitment to diversity by Minority Access Incorporated.