If You Want to Build Strong Communities, Stop Talking About Diversity

By Natalie Clay


Natalie Clay is a community development, and diversity & inclusion professional in St. Louis. She most recently served as the Education and Training Manager at Diversity Awareness Partnership where she supported organizations of all sizes build more inclusive cultures.  She provided training to over 1,000 people in the areas of unconscious bias, diversity strategic planning and facilitating dialogues about diversity.  Prior to that, she worked with Beyond Housing in a variety of positions, including leading Pagedale Determined, a participatory planning process that was recently recognized by the Missouri Chapter of the American Planning Association for Outstanding Community Outreach.  Natalie has a Masters in Social Work from Washington University, and is a graduate of the CoroTM Fellowship in Public Affairs.

As I reflect on 2014, it’s hard to focus on much more than the unrest in the region.  Many people have enumerated a long list of causes that lead up to the protests and upset-lack of jobs, struggling schools, housing segregation.  The cause I observed was diversity without inclusion.

While the two concepts are often used as synonyms, they are very different.  Diversity describes our differences; inclusion is the process of the differences working together.  What I observed — and continue to observe — are diverse neighborhoods filled with different types of people who do not feel included in the processes of their local governments, community organizations, and neighborhoods.

I care about both diversity and inclusion.  But I care more about inclusion.  We are human beings with DNA that constantly reproduces in random ways.  Diversity happens without me.

As community development professionals, we need to be wary of intentional and unintentional residential segregation along lines of race, class and religion.  However, if we don’t start actively building inclusion, we will never have strong communities, regardless of who lives and works in them.

The reason we don’t have inclusive communities is because inclusion is hard.  We devote our days (and often evenings and weekends) to helping people and communities.  We are good people!  We are also human beings with biases.  And we work with human beings with biases.

It’s normal.  Everyone has biases, even when we disagree with them.  There is a lot of research about the biological reasons we have biases, but I am interested in how we counteract them to intentionally build inclusive communities.

Intentionality is the key.  Human beings are creatures of comfort and routine, and inclusion can be uncomfortable.  It requires us to let go of the paradigms we have, being open to being wrong and trying new things.

Building inclusive communities requires a multi-prong approach:

Personal:  We need more individuals talking honestly about their biases and how they are actively working to overcome them.  I’m happy to have that conversation with you about myself.  Will you join me?  A helpful tool for revealing some of the biases you may not be aware of is the Implicit Association Test out of Harvard University, which can be found at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.  They are free, short, and measure the degree to which you associate one idea with a group of people, thus revealing your biases.  I took the test that measures the degree to which you associate people of color with violent weapons.  It revealed that I have a slight bias towards that association.  Now, the only people I know who own guns are white, so I have no lived experience to inform that bias.  And logically I don’t agree with that bias.  But it’s still there.  Now that I know it, I have put steps in place to correct for it.

Organizational:  Build inclusive organizations.  Organizations need to define the reason that inclusion is important to their work; “because it’s the right thing to do” is not good enough.  Once defined, everyone from the Board of Directors to frontline staff need to engage in training and plan intentional steps for strengthening organizational inclusion.  Recognizing the importance of inclusion, Beyond Housing trains all of its employees on diversity.  To plan next steps, they launched an inclusions working group, comprised of staff from all across the organization in 2014.

Consistently re-evaluate how inclusive your community-facing processes are.  In the spring of 2013 I was the lead staff on a participatory planning process that used new and innovative planning processes.  I read every article about participatory planning, and talked to every “expert” around.  And when my plan (full of cool ideas, by the way) was done, I proudly shared it with residents and asked for their feedback.  I wrote some of their ideas down, implemented the ones that fit best with my plan and moved on.  Inclusive, right?  Not exactly.  We got excellent results, but a more inclusive process would have started with ideas from residents about the planning process.

In Communities:  Address inclusion directly with, and between, residents.  It is clear that weekly or monthly community events or meetings are not enough to build true inclusion.  What we need are real dialogues-not debates-about inclusion in our communities.  This fall, the Old North Restoration Group partnered with YWCA to hold a series of conversations around race.  I do not know the outcomes of the dialogues, but I’m glad to see that an organization is taking a chance.

The work of building inclusive communities is not short term.  It’s also not without conflict.  But if we are going to build a St. Louis that is stronger and healthier, we need to seriously take a look at how inclusive we, and our communities, are.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the view of the Community Builders Network or Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.