Talking About Diversity

Top Five Takeaways from the Needham Diversity Summit

The 2016 election season laid bare many aspects of American society that have concrete ramifications for our lives as educators, parents, students and community members. Regardless of political party, we can all benefit from an ongoing community dialogue about diversity, and seek to challenge isolating “us vs. them” ideology. To this end, early Saturday morning on November 19th, Needham community members including myself came together for the 5th Annual Needham Diversity Summit, and I decided to share some of what I learned.

  • We Are All On a Racial and Cultural Journey: As our town, state and country grows ever more diverse, the urge to remain inside a comfortable bubble can be tempting. Speaker Manuel J. Fernandez, former President of the METCO Directors Association and a principal in Cambridge, as a part of his talk on “Inclusion in Education and How that Makes Us Stronger,” noted “race and culture are always operative and sometimes relevant.” Race and culture do not pop up in our lives from time to time- they are ever-present. It is imperative that we are able to acknowledge how race and culture affects our lives and informs our interactions with others in the community and the workplace. 
  • There Are No “How-To” Books: The work we must do is incremental, and will not happen overnight. Challenging implicit bias and engaging from a different perspective can be hard work, and it’s not always comfortable, nor should it be. The thinking that we do in summits, in meetings and conferences are critical to schools and businesses. There will be many questions along the journey, and if we fully engage with those questions, we become better members of our community and our ever-widening world.
  • Excuse Me? Challenge Statements: It can often be daunting to formulate a response to offensive statements in the midst of a conversation, on the spot. At church or temple, at holiday events with family, or simply out and about, there is always an opportunity to challenge such statements. When confronted with racist, sexist, homophobic, islamaphobic, ableist or transphobic language, an easy way to challenge the speaker is to simply say “Excuse Me?.” These two words may be what the speaker needs to take a moment and think about their words and the meaning behind them.
  • The Importance of Cultural Proficiency: As Mr. Fernandez remarked at the Summit, we can’t have academic excellence without cultural proficiency. Cultural Proficiency is the capacity to interact with people different from yourself with respect, curiosity, and shared understanding of culture. One key aspect of cultural proficiency is simply listening. In a school setting, listening to what parents identify as strengths and challenges for their child can make the difference for that child, and lays a groundwork of trust for the parent-teacher relationship.
  • Challenging the Opportunity Gap: Fernandez named 5 A’s that he utilizes to challenge the disparity in access to quality schools and the resources for students to be academically successful
    • Academics– rigorous teaching in a supportive environment
    • Arts– Exposure to and instruction in the arts
    • Athletics and Wellness– non-competitive options for exercise and movement with an eye towards wellness and health
    • Associations– creating groups in which students can find community
    • Access– access to technology at an affordable price for low-income households, partnering with technology companies to provide access

If you’d like to learn more, here are some useful links:

For more information on the Needham Diversity Initiative

For more on the work being done by Manuel J. Fernandez

Needham Human Rights Committee

Nurturing, Educating, and Empowering Children