The first thing my wife and I comment on when we go to a restaurant or a park is the diversity. We generally want more. We’re part of a generation of Americans raised on the “celebrate diversity” mantra. Our elementary school books were illustrated with pictures of kids of different colors. We read Toni Morrison and Richard Wright in college.
So reading Robert Putnam’s study on the downsides of diversity is disconcerting. Putnam put the term “social capital” on the map in his book, Bowling Alone. Civic engagement, he believes, is crucial to America, and it is seriously in decline.
In Bowling Alone, Putnam blamed much of this decline on television (which I’m happy to have as the culprit, even as I confess that the idiot box is on in the background as I write this).
Several months back, he released a publication stating that something else essential to America is bad for civic engagement – diversity.
“Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us,” he writes.
He explains further that people in more diverse communities tend to “distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”
Here’s how Michael Jonas sums it up in an exceptional article on the study, “Birds of different feathers may sometimes flock together, but they are also less likely to look out for one another.”
This research has won Putnam a host of admirers he would rather not have, including David Duke.
Those of us who are not David Duke, and think diversity is a positive thing, still need to take Putnam’s findings seriously.
I frequently cite Diana Eck’s work in this blog, and I think it is absolutely central to thinking about this topic. Eck, a Harvard professor who first made her name as a scholar of Hinduism and more recently as a writer on America’s growing religious diversity, makes a crucial distinction between diversity and pluralism. Diversity is simply the fact of people from different backgrounds living in close quarters. Pluralism is the “energetic engagement” of those differences with the purpose of creating not only positive bonds but also active social capital. Diana’s work with the Pluralism Project exhibits where this is happening in America with respect to religious diversity, and where it’s not. It was Diana’s work that I relied on most heavily when founding the Interfaith Youth Core.
In other words, it’s not about whether diversity is good or bad. Diversity is a fact, and in America it’s not going away. The question is how to best engage the fact of diversity in a way that builds social capital and increases civic engagement. And when the pluralists don’t engage diversity by building positive social bonds, then we leave a vacuum that is often filled by extremists or bigots.
That’s why I’m always on the lookout for institutions that are intentional about bringing people from different backgrounds together to build positive bonds. I’ve long believed that the model for this was Jane Addams Hull House, set up on the west side of Chicago in the late 19th century to bring immigrants from different backgrounds together and introduce them to American democracy.
A few months ago, I read about a 21st century version of Hull House – a school in Decatur, Georgia that is so diverse the weekly newsletter is published in six languages, and still many parents can’t read it. An excellent New York Times piece on the school pointed out both the wonder and the warts of this institution – both the unlikely friendships that are made, and the unique educational challenges that such diversity presents.
Some people might say this is too hard, but the truth is there is no turning back from American diversity. The only question is what we do with it.
Those kids from all those different backgrounds in Decatur would still be living in close quarters even if that school didn’t exist. How would they view each other? What would their relationships be like? If they weren’t in this school with a set of teachers encouraging appreciative knowledge of their diversity and facilitating positive relationships, who else might have stepped into the vacuum, and what messages might those people bring?
I believe institutions like the International Community School are America at its best. And because I travel and speak a lot about religious diversity for the Interfaith Youth Core, I get to see similar efforts all over the country.
Recently, I was in Syracuse, New York, a small city welcoming the world’s diversity, and engaging it in a way that builds pluralism. A major refugee resettlement center, Syracuse possesses remarkable religious diversity for a city its size. In addition to the collection of Christian and Jewish denominations one might expect, Syracuse is also home to thriving Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities. More importantly, though, these communities are in relationship with one another through an assortment of interfaith and other civic organizations. Started in the wake of 9/11, Women Transcending Boundaries is a “community of women from many religious and cultural traditions” that “seek to nurture mutual respect and understanding by sharing information about our diverse beliefs, customs, and practices and by working together to address our common concerns.” The Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS) brings together Syracuse’s diverse communities to work for better education, economic development, and healthcare. InterFaith Works of Central New York ” holds community dialogues on issues of race and religion, working to build sustained relationships throughout Syracuse.
Not surprisingly, Syracuse University also plays a strong role in cultivating social capital and transforming mere diversity into pluralism. The University’s Hendricks Chapel hosts a dozen different chaplaincies, providing each with both the institutional support and physical space for their communities to thrive on campus. A range of student religious groups come to know each other through the auspices of the Chapel, and serve together through the Chapel’s Office of Community Engagement and Integrative Learning. Last year, a dozen religiously diverse students went to Turkey together on an interfaith trip.
As a lead up to the University’s “Big Event” this spring – a University-wide service day – student members of many of these groups (organized by an Interfaith Youth Core Fellow named Nicole) will be chalking the campus with expressions of their personal call to service, drawing public attention to both the diversity of religious expression at the University as well as the shared value of service. Next fall, students will be able to enroll in a new field course on “Religious Communities in Syracuse,” co-taught by a senior named Rachel committed to introducing her classmates to not just the diversity, but the pluralism of religious life in Syracuse.
Those are initiatives that turn diversity into pluralism.