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Sunday, January 31, 2010
Diversity Toolbox

Mission: Baby steps to diversity

By Curtis Lawrence

Our journalism department recently conducted the re-writing of its mission statement. In most cases, I find this process more painful than a day at the dentist. The mission meeting usually involves a sports-jacket-clad consultant, reams of butcher-block paper and clock-watching faculty members. (Our consultant was a woman sans sport jacket.)

Mission statements at colleges and workplaces often are recorded in the minutes or put on file. This is the equivalent of the kitchen junk drawer that is home to the dried-out glue stick and refrigerator warranty. Most folks look at the warranty when the fridge goes on the fritz. They don’t check it periodically to see if the fridge is meeting expectations.

Our faculty members also were asked to list individual goals for students and faculty. Of course, the student mission statement included diversity. I’m fortunate to work at a place where diversity is almost always on the table at every level of school operations.

One of the goals initially read that students should apply diversity in reporting, writing, editing and producing. This seemed reasonable, but after some thought it sounded inadequate. This goal could have been interpreted as: students should include more than one race in their source list. Or, it could be narrowly interpreted to imply that you should not have a story that does not include women. Basically the goal as first written could be interpreted in many ways depending on one’s outlook on and/or definition of diversity.

After thinking about this for a moment, I dropped my cynical snarl and took part in the discussion. Eventually we agreed that diversity should be more than a check-off list. I thought of Sally Lehrman, author of “News in a New America,” who has challenged journalists and educators to scratch beneath the surface when discussing diversity.

We changed the goal to: “Graduates of our program should demonstrate an understanding and application of diversity in reporting, writing, editing and producing.” The change added one key word: understanding. But it was an important word. It contained the possibility of moving our students and future journalists beyond the check-off list and into really understanding why it’s important to include a mix of cultures and viewpoints in our work.

The exercise taught me that sometimes we have to drop our cynicism and get our hands dirty if we are serious about diversity. I learned that I will bear some of the responsibility if the mission statement remains in the kitchen junk drawer a few months from now.

Consider these tips for bringing diversity to academia:

REMEMBER THAT YOU’RE PLAYING ON A THREE-TIERED CHESS BOARD

You must simultaneously think of students, faculty and college-wide programming when developing and implementing the diversity strategy.

YOU MUST BE WILLING TO APPLY THE PRINCIPLES OF DIVERSITY BEYOND YOUR FIELD OF INTEREST

For example, your specialty may be in LGBT equality. But you should remain open to the concerns about the need for diversity in race and gender.

THINK SMALL

Everything does not have to be a major campaign. When you insist that students include a wide range of sources, you are encouraging not only solid journalism but diversity as well.

VET YOUR IDEAS WITH STUDENTS AND ALUMNI

They are often best at defining what strategies are successful.

JOIN ORGANIZATIONS THAT ALLOW FOR AN ONGOING DIALOGUE ON DIVERSITY ISSUES

This allows you to share ideas with colleagues from your school and from other institutions. It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re working in isolation.

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