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Tackle Diversity: It's a Domestic and a Global Issue

Diversity is more than race and gender, numbers and dollars.

Bennett College for Women is a tiny (with an enrollment of just 504) historically black college in Greensboro, NC. One of only two traditionally African-American institutions that enroll only women, it has been pulled back from the brink of financial ruin by its 14th president, Johnnetta B. Cole, who began her tenure in 2002.

It is safe to say that most Americans have never heard of Bennett. But on March 30, 2005, a handful of CEOs and dozens of corporate chief diversity officers thronged to the campus for the second annual Chief Diversity Officers Forum hosted by the college’s recently created Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute.

Bennett seems an unlikely place for a gathering of American executives whose charge is to respond to domestic and world demographic trends by embracing diversity in the workplace, corporate culture, and supplier opportunities. But Cole sits on several corporate boards and is keenly aware that diversity issues pose a challenge for everyone, not just for the whites who sometimes feel nudged to “move over” and make room for “new populations.” Cole reminded conference attendees that diversity issues transcend race and gender to include class, sexual orientation, religion, and even culture. More than a decade after Rodney King asked, “Can we all get along?” the conference at Bennett and the work of the JBC Institute seek to develop a pedagogy and a methodology around that very issue–getting along and maximizing productivity in the workplace and in society.

This is an important time to tackle these issues. There are more than 90 million people of color in the United States–roughly 41 million Latinos, 36 million African Americans, 12 million Asian Americans, two million Native Americans, and millions more who describe themselves as “other.” These populations are all growing, in some cases faster than the overall population. And they have kinship ties to key trading markets outside the United States, providing us with an advantage over trade competitors if we choose to make use of it.

But diversity isn’t just about numbers and dollars; it’s also about a spirit that opens doors and expands opportunity. It’s a concept that is both domestic and global. At home, we need to make room for those who have been stuck at the economic periphery. Outside our borders, economic marginalization is even more acute: most people in Africa, and throughout much of the developing world, live on less than two dollars a day.

How do we all get along when scarcity is the norm? There never seems to be enough–jobs to go around, money to invest, opportunities to apportion. So how do we make room for diverse populations to participate in world economic expansion? We in the United States have been excited about the benefits of globalization, especially when trade has provided us with an opportunity to sell goods and services abroad. We are less enthusiastic about the goods and services that flow here, especially when it means jobs go to lower-cost workers elsewhere.

Our feelings are most mixed when it comes to the labor market. We have accepted the need for immigrants to come to the United States temporarily to do technical work on H-1B visas. We are much more ambivalent about immigrants who work as laborers or in the service sector–so much so that Mexican president Vicente Fox has called our bluff, pointing out our dependence on Mexican workers for a host of low- and moderate-wage jobs. Many Americans have become frenzied about the “outsourcing” of employment, especially to India, without recognizing that India is increasing its spending on education and producing engineers more rapidly than the United States. India is thus augmenting a workforce that has not been fully developed in our country–highlighting the returns on educational investment that we have ignored in the past decade.

Corporate diversity officers often have the word “global” in their titles because commerce is an international enterprise. The diversity issue is far more complex than simply making sure that there are faces of color both on the factory floor and in the boardroom. It affects the ways that corporate giving is defined, that pay and benefit policies evolve, and that work and family issues are addressed.

Bennett is providing some of the leadership around these issues partly because African-American women, who have so frequently found themselves at the corporate periphery, have both much to teach and much to learn about diversity. And according to Johnnetta Cole, educational institutions must “lead the way in supporting and encouraging the active exchange of ideas.” Bennett has provided a model for other academic institutions to consider, as diversity issues continue to challenge us on campus, in the workplace, and in the world.

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