In all of the years I have been attending the Taylor Symposia, I cannot remember confronting a more important topic than the one implicit in the Symposium title, DiverCity…
In all of the years I have been attending the Taylor Symposia, I cannot remember confronting a more important topic than the one implicit in the Symposium title, DiverCity. Today, speakers and attendees alike will wrestle with the question: How should our Cities understand, confront and respond to diversity?
As our world has grown smaller, we have become increasingly aware of both our differences and our similarities–the comforts of familiar cultural and ethnic identities and the competing attractions of a homogenizing global culture. In a recent book aptly named Jihad vs McWorld, Benjamin Barber has suggested that the struggle is between a militant tribalism on the one hand, and a culturally impoverished uniformity –a world in which everyone dresses from the Gap, eats at McDonalds and listens to American popular music–on the other.
If we find both those alternatives distasteful or unacceptable–and I certainly do–we need to figure out a better way to deal with our differences. To appropriate the language of Tony Blair, we need to find a "third way." And we need to look for that "third way" where we live–in our cities. The American motto, as we all know, is E Pluribus Unum. Out of the many, one. How do we hear that motto today, at the cusp of a multicultural 21st Century? What should it mean to those who are redefining the urban experience?
I am going to tell you what I believe the Diverse City ought to look like. You may disagree with some or all of what I will suggest, and if so, I hope you will attend the panels and workshops that follow and argue for a different approach. But I hope you will agree with my central point, that we desperately need a vision, a framework for civic action, whether that framework looks like mine or not. Because without a shared animating vision of a City that nourishes differences without undervaluing commonalities, we will be left dealing with the tribalism that Barber so chillingly evoked.
There’s an old saying: Out of the mouths of babes. My starting point for today’s discussion is a conversation I had with my middle son a few years ago. He lives in San Francisco, and I was accusing him of being a "wuss." "Here I am, in Indiana, fighting for gay rights against assorted kooks and bigots and in the face of an entrenched homophobia; and there you are, in San Francisco, where sexual orientation is a big ho-hum. Why aren’t you back here with me, fighting Woody Burton and others who would keep you a second-class citizen?" His answer made me think, then and since, because it is at the heart of what we talk about when we discuss diversity. He said "Mom, I’m comfortable with my orientation and happy with who I am. But I am more than just gay. I don’t want to live in a place that defines me solely by reference to any of my identities or characteristics. I want the freedom to be everything I am, not just part of what I am."
Aristotle defined the ideal society as one that enables human flourishing–a society that nourishes the unique humanity within each citizen. That is the city and society my son wants: a place where no aspect of his humanity will either define or confine him. We are all members of so many overlapping communities. Some are ethnic, cultural or religious. Some are based on affinities–common interests, professions, political beliefs, shared experiences. I consider myself part of a number of communities: the Jewish community, the legal community, the scholarly community. I share communities with feminists, with historic preservationists, with Goldwater Republicans, with Midwesterners, with civil libertarians…the list goes on. Everyone here has a similar list. Why should we have to confine ourselves to any particular one of those communities? Why should we restrict our definition of identity to ethnicity or geography or gender or sexual orientation?
The Diverse City should create and sustain an environment that recognizes the reality of those overlapping communities. It should encourage each of us to create out of those resources a self that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
How can a city do that when we are embedded in a national and global environment that dictates our culture and restricts our options in so many ways? How can a mere municipality counter global culture, pop culture, institutionalized racism and all the other "isms" that permeate our daily experiences?
I suggest that we start with our political communities, and begin to build a "civic infrastructure" based upon respect for each and every citizen. Leadership is obviously vital. We need to elect public officials–from Mayor to City County Council to Township Trustee–who are committed to creating a civic culture that values everyone.
Most politicians talk a good game these days, but genuine commitment will be reflected in specific policies. Are there tensions between minorities and police? What is the DiverCity doing to get bad apples out of uniform? Is our political leadership encouraging communication between public safety officials and those who feel ill-used? Are there mechanisms for complaints to be lodged, and do civilians control and trust those mechanisms?
Redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods is important, but it can be contentious. Do neighborhoods have a voice in the policies that affect them? Are stakeholders encouraged to talk directly to each other, rather than filtering communications through intermediaries in planning and zoning?
When City priorities are set, are all parts of the city heard from? Does leadership spend as much time and energy listening to the people who depend on public transportation as it does listening to the people who own $30,000 SUV’s?
In the DiverCity, is everyone’s voice being heard?
This issue of voice is a critical one. Reasonable people understand that they aren’t going to get their way every time there is a conflict. But citizens are entitled to have a voice in matters that concern them. Giving people voice involves more than a pro-forma public meeting held after the decision has really already been made. It involves genuine listening, attention to the substance of the communication and–most of all–recognition of and respect for the right of the person or organization to participate in the conversation. Giving people voice is the opposite of "dissing"–and it’s what democratic governance is all about.
Above all, the DiverCity must conduct its business in such a way as to encourage the formation of what has been called social capital. Robert Putnam and others have suggested that communities are created and sustained by mutual engagement, dense networks that connect citizens to each other through common interests and experiences, networks that build trust and facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit. There has been a renewed interest in social capital among academics over the past decade, and I hope that interest begins to inform policy. Just as we now require "environmental impact statements" before we proceed with projects likely to affect the natural environment, we need "social capital impact" statements before we pursue government policies that estrange people from each other and attenuate the common enterprise of citizenship.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
In response to concerns about the size of government, public managers have embraced a variety of reforms–the "reinventing government" fad of the past few years. Most "reinvention" has involved privatization, by which we mean something quite different than selling government enterprises off to private operators, which is what it used to mean. Now we typically use the term to mean "contracting out" —the process by which government duties are discharged by private contractors, and government’s role is limited to purchasing those goods and services. Governments have always done a good bit of this (we don’t expect city hall to manufacture its own pencils, or computers), but contracting out has been greatly expanded during the past decade or so, on the theory that we can save tax dollars by doing so. Until recently, however, no one has thought to consider the effect of such practices on civic participation and social capital.
Citizens participate in their government in a number of ways beyond campaigns and elections. They serve on Boards and Commissions and ad hoc committees. They attend public hearings. They call City Hall to complain about potholes, or to demand installation of a traffic signal. They obtain permits. They work for government, as employees or consultants or contractors. They are vendors to government agencies. In the process, they partake of a civic and political culture, with shared meanings and expectations that evolve over time and function as a kind of civic glue. Such participation reminds them that they are more than customers receiving services; they are citizens engaged in common civic pursuits. Privatization reduces those points of contact. If we privatize too much, if we thereby imperil connections to citizenship and erode institutions that generate social capital in pursuit of management "efficiency," we may find that we have made a very bad trade.
One of the institutions that has historically been most important in forging a common culture from diverse elements has been the public schools. Public education is the current target of privatization advocates, who would reduce the role of government to the issuance of vouchers. Before we decide that the state should no longer control the American educational apparatus, however, we had better carefully consider what it is we want our schools to do. If education is only the transmittal of literacy and technical knowledge sufficient to support economic growth and individual self-sufficiency, vouchers may have merit. But if education is also the creation of political community, the process of creating unum from our pluribus, vouchers will make schooling less effective, not more.
In 1996, the Twentieth Century Fund issued a report on school privatization, in which the authors noted that
"Under [vouchers], the educational funding stream flows directly from the government to private individuals without the mediation of a public system. Thus, education ceases to be a collective public undertaking and becomes instead a private relationship between each family and its school. Schooling ceases to be part of the public sphere; no longer a public service, it becomes a consumable item."
Such a result should trouble us. Wouldn’t treating education as a "consumable" promote a new version of "separate but equal"? Wouldn’t it foster the tribalism about which Barber has warned? Common schools have been an important force for community building in our cities. We need to consider the consequences for the civic infrastructure if we dismantle them.
In similar fashion, the DiverCity will take inventory of all its institutions and will assess their role in bridging the differences among citizens. It will choose to strengthen those that build social capital and foster mutual respect and to rethink those that fragment or polarize its citizens.
E Pluribus Unum does not require that we give up who we are in exchange for a place at the American table. It does require that each of us bring our different gifts, perspectives and talents to a common table, a communal table where we will all be welcomed and heard, and where we come together to celebrate and nourish the American democratic experience.
does not require that we give up who we are in exchange for a place at the American table. It does require that each of us bring our different gifts, perspectives and talents to a common table, a communal table where we will all be welcomed and heard, and where we come together to celebrate and nourish the American democratic experience.
If I may stretch my overworked metaphor even farther, the DiverCity should be a smorgasbord, a pitch-in dinner, a community-wide picnic featuring both exotic and familiar cuisines–and over the table there should be a great big banner that says "Y’all come."