Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Telling Our Stories: Toward the True Meaning of Diversity, Equality and Excellence in American Society

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Diverse Voices Conference on Exploring the Relationship Between Diversity, Equity and Excellence,  Oakland University, March 28, 2009, Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III

I want to thank Dr. Chandra Scott and members of the Diverse Voices Conference Committee for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today to speak on a subject very close to my heart; “Telling Our Stories: Towards the true meaning of Diversity, Equity and Excellence in American Society.”

We live in a country that prides itself as a diverse nation. Looking out over this audience today, I see people of all races, sexes, ages, colors, religions, persuasions and orientations. How beautiful this image is that we would have so many different people from so many different places with a variety of looks on various paths to a variety of careers and with so many different points of view all in one place.

“Diversity is a collection of different things, ideas and people. As folks came to America from different lands, they brought diverse ways of doing things.”

Some writers have likened the diversity of America to a melting pot. Others have observed that America’s variety is more like a tossed salad. “Imagine a big bowl. Throw in lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes. Toss in chicken and and peppers. Now top it with a tasty dressing. The lettuce still looks like lettuce, but mixed with the other flavors, it tastes different. This colorful salad tastes great. America is a lot like that. People from many different lands have brought their customs-the beliefs and habits of the places from which they came-and of those things have been thrown into the same bowl and tossed together.”

We can say that there is beauty and flavor in variety. There is power in diversity and excellence. Diversity means the ways in which we have modeled a society where many different people can find their voice and place with purpose and meaning.

Theologian Howard Thurman said that the mind of God was experimenting in the creation of America. Thurman observed that virtually no other society in the history of humankind has had the plurality of so many racial and ethnic groups, the confluence of cultures, food ways and folkways from Africa, Europe, Asia, India, the Middle East, Latin America, Mexico and other parts of the world. People long to come to America and once here seldom want to leave it.

Virtually every race and ethnic group in the world has taken refuge within these shores. They have found freedom, solidarity and prosperity. They have also encountered hardship, discrimination and opposition because they were different. The profile of American citizenry ranges from former slaves to political prisoners, from political and religious refugees to people fleeing potato famine, from migrant workers to people escaping the ravages and devastations of war, from the marginalized, oppressed and well to do to first nation peoples.

Just as America is a potpourri of various races, cultures and nationalities, virtually every imaginable human condition is here. Pulitizer Prize and Grammy winning musician Wynton Marsalis says “What I like about New York is that there is every imaginable human situation and condition under the sun.” For Marsalis New York in all of its varieties of conditions is a microcosm of America and the world.

There is great variety here. It is part of the very nature and fabric of American society. There is wealth and poverty, justice and injustice, opportunity and squalor, freedom and limitation, violence and non-violence, benevolence and malevolence, philanthropy and misanthropy, racial integration and racial apartheid, the grass roots, the dirt poor and what C. Wright Mills called the power elite.

There are European, Native, African, Asian, Latino, Chicano and Hispanic cultures. Classical music, Jazz, blues, rap, rock and roll, reggae, salsa, mambo, cha cha and country music. There is baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet; marshall arts, sushi and Toyota. There is Zuben Meta, Yo, Yo Ma and Kathleen Battle. There is Bruce Springsteen Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. There is Horace Silver, Charlie Parker and Bennie Goodman; James Brown, Bobby Brown and the Brown Blind Boys. There is Carlos Santana, J Z, Snoop Dog and under dog, the OJays and LL. Cool Jay. There is Paula Abdul, Mariah Carey, and Mary J. Blige. There is Barbara Steisand, Frank Sinatra, Waylan Jennings and Garth Brooks. There is Luis Alvares, Nicola Tesla, Caesar Chavez and Enrico Fermi. I. M. Dei, Irving Berlin and countless female, inventors, activists, composers and scientists. There is Motown, Chi Town and Tinsel Town. Harlem, New York, Hollywood California, Appalachia and Palm Springs Florida, Watts and Washington D. C.. There is Midnight Mississippi and Daylight North Dakota, Birmingham Alabama and Birmingham Michigan.

America is a diversity of cultures, folkways and food groups: black eyed peas, egg plant, bananas, rice and peanuts, chocolate, vanilla, pineapple, avocados, guavas and papayas. Donuts, cookies, tacos and tortillas, bagels, coffee and pizza. Sport: Baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, soccer and ice hockey, all, except basketball, having their origins in other countries, and there are varieties of religions, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Shintoism and atheism.

American means diversity, variety and multiplicity. We are plural society with an assortment of peoples, which is part of our national identity. E pluribus unum, which means in “one many.” No matter where you are from, you have something very special-a culture- the ways you eat, sing, dress, pray, think, dance and celebrate life. All of this constitutes the uniquess of America.

You are a part of this great American story and the great American story is part of you. It is important that you tell your stories and share them in ways that will strengthen and help build America.

Furthermore, as part of this great American story, each of you has a story that is uniquely your own; a story that is particular because there has never been a person like you and there will never ever be a person exactly like you. Judeo, Christian theology teaches that the creativity of God was at work in the beginning or creation. Imagine God, if you will, as a creative artist, painting on the canvass of life such a great variety of life. Each of us is fashioned uniquely in accordance with the creativity of God. There never has been and never will be an exact replica of you.

Just as you are unique, your personal story is special. Your story is also particular because as a uniquely created being, with special characteristics and traits, which make you one of a kind in the history and future of all creation, you have lived particular life experiences, at a particular time in human history, in a particular society as this unique person. Thus your story is particular because of your uniqueness as a person and your lived experiences as that unique person in human history. Diversity means understanding and appreciating the particularities and uniqueness of our life stories.

Your story is also universal inasmuch as the experience you have had also transcends the particularity of your uniqueness and has common elements with other human beings worldwide. There is something in your particular experience as a unique human person that has universal value, has common ground with other human beings and can become a vista through which other human beings can see themselves, identify themselves and affirm themselves as persons of value and worth. Diversity means understanding and appreciating the universality of our particular stories and experiences.

My experience as an African American male who is also half Canadian, part Native American and Native Canadian, living in America not only has particular nuances and characteristics, but also has universal value insofar as people of other races and cultures can look through my unique window and experiences and see something of value and worth in themselves.

Because I am African American or someone is Asian American or Polish American or Native American or Irish American, or French, Italian or Tahitian should not prevent us from seeing the universal aspects of the things we hold in common. Our stories are particular but our stories have universal value by touching the themes common to our humanity human experience.

In our particular life stories there suffering, pain, joy, victory, defeat, life and death, courage and trial. Each person as a human being has experiences that relate to the experiences of other human beings. Our particular stories have universal value and help other people different from ourselves find purpose and meaning in their lives.

Our uniqueness as human beings need not be a prologue to separation and discontinuity between us. It is a way of diversifying human experiences and appreciating the things we have in common as human persons. Far too often, our particularities as unique people become a pretext for our mortal combat and isolation from each other rather than a context for our unification with one another.

We must find ways of telling and valuing our stories by sharing what’s unique about them as well as finding common ground with other people’s storie

What is your story? Who are you? Do you know your story? Do you own your story? Do you understand your story although there are part of it that might be painful to see and to tell. Your story is peculiar to you but has universal relevance to all other human beings who have stories of their own. Your story forms a narrative of your life experiences and tells others who you are.

One problem is that in a society with so many different peoples and so many different stories and histories within the larger American story, our individual and collective narratives often compete; and our competing narratives are often constructed in ways that exclude rather than include people who are different.

Each of us has an individual narrative, which is the form our personal stories take. This individual narrative is comprised of our life experiences. Moreover, as part of a particular social group, we also have a collective or group narrative or story, which is often fashioned in accordance with the experiences and realities that have shaped our primary consciousness and given us identity and meaning in our world.

In America, a leading narrative centers around race and racial identity. Much of the experience of America has been told in accordance with these narratives. There are other story narratives focusing primarily on class, gender, sex or even religion. There are emerging narratives and competing narratives.

But Race becomes one factor shaping people’s understanding of themselves in relation to themselves, in relation to others who are similar and different and in relation to the larger society as a whole. Race experience becomes the dominant narrative through which people evaluate, articulate and value their life experiences as they actualize their potential and compete for material resources and survival. Race becomes the preeminent form of narrative in shaping the collective story of groups in America, and influencing people’s perception and understanding of their value and self worth in American society. That value and self worth are often measured by material possessions, and the acquisition and use of wealth and power. The social categories by which we describe and define ourselves as Americans thus have weight in shaping the types of competing racial narratives we construct and create for sanity and survival in the world.

Because various groups often compete for power and control of resources in society, and align themselves according to Michel Foucault with various regimes of truth, the emerging racial narratives are not only competitive, but sometimes destructive and often mutually exclusive. We tend to construct these racial narratives in ways that separate us from others with similar experiences. Or we construct these narratives in ways that will not allow others who are different find meaning in them. Our narratives are often fashioned in heroic story forms, where there are heroes and villains, angels and devils, so to speak. We construct these narratives in ways that condemn entire groups of people, so that even those people who have become our enemies have no redemptive elements of qualities. So we oversimplify and generalize and say that all white people are racists. All black people are victims. All this people are that or all that people are this.

Accordingly, the experience of black peoples suffering or women’s suffering or the suffering of people of different ethnic groups, political persuasions and sexual orientations should have value and meaning for people who are not a part of those groups, and should have meaning for people who have opposed those groups. The fact that it is black people, or native people or women or other people’s suffering should not prevent us from seeing ourselves in that narrative and obtaining meaning from it.

But we often say that because it is black suffering it is not relevant to white suffering. Because it is women’s suffering it is not relevant to the suffering of men. Because it is Iraqui suffering it has no pertinence to American suffering. Because it is Muslim suffering, it has no value for Christian and Jewish suffering. Because it is suffering resulting from the oppression of gays, lesbians, short people or fat people, it has no meaning for people who are not gay, lesbian or people who are tall and thin.

Because we have constructed a society where the narratives of race, class, sex, religion and ethnicity have dominance, we often get stuck on the fact of whose suffering it is, rather than identifying with that suffering as a universal value and as part of our own. We find meaning and common ground with others, when we enter their narratives as part of our own narrative story as human beings.

As we compete for material resources and survival in our world, we construct these various narratives and stories in ways that often shut people out because they are different or because we have had a history of conflict with them. The result is often racial, ethnic or gender insensitivity. It is easy to point an accusing finger at someone because he or she is different and has nothing in common with me. It is easy to polarize and isolate ourselves from people who have hurt us. We become tone deaf to the needs and concerns and sufferings of others because we perceive them as so different than ourselves. We become anesthetized and desensitized to other people because of their race, gender, class, religious or sexual orientation and this precipitates our continued alienation from one other.

In such a climate, rather than view each other as unique persons whose narratives notwithstanding race, gender or class have value and meaning even for those who are different, we sometimes knowingly and unknowingly use them as wedges to divide us rather than as bridges to build and unite us.

Rather than celebrating diverse experiences and forging common ground between us based on those differences, we often construct more barriers, more impediments, more suspicions and more resistance to diversification.

Often what passes as diversification is nothing more than polite and forced toleration than a real appreciation of differences.

Furthermore and not to belabor this point, there are narratives within the narratives that transcend the predominant narratives of any given group in society. The emergence of Barack Obama as President of these United States is just as much a reflection of the struggle of Americans to construct a new post racial narrative that embraces the particularity of race as it is an attempt to construct one that universally transcends it. Race need not get in the way. Gender need not get in the way. Ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation need not get in the way. We look beyond the label to see the true person. We go beyond the social constraints to find common value and meaning as human persons.

New narratives are breaking through all the time, and as Thomas Kuhn has observed in his book, the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, paradigm shifts in science and I might add in other parts of society, are often sudden, abrupt and at times cataclysmic. They are a necessary part of humanity’s and civilizations march to progress, completion and fulfillment.

As a nation of diverse persons that prides itself as being both a melting pot and a tossed salad of various races and ethnic groups, we are not as far down the road as we would like but have come a long ways. We must continue to create a society where true diversity is valued and celebrated, and see the standards of excellence inherent in the recognition of persons who are different.

We do this by celebrating and appreciating the variety of life stories and experiences we all have had and create the kind of lebensraum, living space that will allow those stories to have meaning for us all. These stories represent who we are. They are an important part of the uniqueness of America.

Have you told your story? Your story has meaning, value and purpose. You are a special person with gifts and graces and unique leanings and experiences. Have you shared your story with others in ways that will allow both you and them to find meaning in them even though they are different?

Continuing the journey of appreciating diversity means a true acceptance and appreciation of all people of different races, cultures, genders and orientations.

How do we appreciate and celebrate these differences?

First, we must appreciate the diversity of the created order, which is the foundation of life and consciousness. Diversity is nothing new. It is as old as creation itself. God and creation are way ahead of us. As philosopher, Rene Descartes and G. W.F. Hegel have said, the very structures of human consciousness are made possible by a diversification of nature and matter.

For example, there is blue skies, green grass, brown and red dirt; plant, animal and human life of all sizes, shapes, textures and colors. There are clear, blue and green waters, oceans, rivers and streams, clouds, rain, sun and winds, mountains and valleys, rocks and ridges, hills and dales, night and day, winter, summer, Autumn and spring. All of creation is a diverse tapestry of assorted life with various movements, textures, feelings. It is all uniquely an integral medley of the created order. All life is vitally linked and ultimately fuses together. There are separate parts consisting of various functions all designed to sustain the whole. The poet Tennyson captured it beautifully when he said, “I am a part of all I have met.”

And even if your perspective is more Darwinian in nature, and you don’t subscribe to Judeo Christian Creation Theology, one cannot argue that the nature of species resides in their power to diversity and adapt to varieties of circumstances and conditions so as to ensure their long term survival.

The very structures of consciousness then are dependent upon the diversification of nature and matter. We would not and could not perceive and apprehend reality at all without this diversification. It is because things are different that there is contrast. It is because of contrast that we can conceive the nature of things. Everything would be one continuous blog devoid of distinguishing features, bereft of salient signs that differentiate them from the rest of life. We could not think without the diversification of reality. It is the foundation of all consciousness. Without it we could not see nor grasp the fundamental nature of all reality. The variety of creation constitutes the foundation of our capacity to think and see and know.

II. Second, we must learn to appreciate diversity in Thought. A unique characteristic of human beings which distinguishes them from lower animals is the capacity to think and think about how they think. How can we appreciate people who are different if we can’t accept thinking that is different?

This tendency in humankind to homogenize itself is both the blessing and bane of civilization. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Who so would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Someone else said, “When everyone is thinking alike someone is not thinking.”

A step towards true diversification would be an appreciation of different points of view ‘different types of thinking and thought from different types of people. Different points of view do not have to be earth shattering and threatening. Different should not mean the complete subversion of our systems of value. In some cases, such subversion is necessary to overhaul some systems of belief. Too often, we punish not only the person because he or she is different but we perish their thoughts because they are different. Their narrative or life story reveals their thought processes. We should honor that and respect that. Through the diversification of thought and ideas we have the opportunity to gain complete insight into a wide spectrum of thought and belief. Everyone can benefit.

Maybe that’s why Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book Team of Rivals tells us that Abraham Lincoln included in his cabinet a diversity of opinions so as to get the truest of picture of reality. The nation was split between opposing sides. These viewpoints ranged from those of similar opinion to Lincoln to those who were philosophically and ideologically opposed to his own. One has to be very secure in one’s own thinking to be open to different points of view.

What unique points of view do women bring by way of their uniqueness as persons? What special viewpoints to do others bring by virtue of their life experiences or their cultural context? There are many ways of seeing the world and many ways of experiencing the world. The saying is true, “We see things not as they are but as we are.”

Wade Davis quote is helpful. He says, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

There are many different thoughts and many styles of thinking and learning. Robert J. Sternberg in his book “Thinking Styles” says we often exclude people on the basis of their thinking. Paulo Freire tells us that one problem with education is that it rewards conformity and not creativity. People are not taught to think but to imitate and regurgitate information through what Freire calls the Banking concept of education.

In his book “Education for Critical Consciousness,” he tells us that the Banking concept of education is most prevalent where information is deposited in the minds of students for withdrawal at examination time. Students are rewarded on their capacity to regurgitate information exactly as the teacher deems and not for creative thought. Creative thought is often devalued and not rewarded because it does not imitate exactly the information deposited in their minds. Freire calls for co-intentional education where students are not simply repositories of information but are taught to integrate that knowledge into reality and to think of themselves as co-transformers of reality.

Diversity means appreciating different points of view and teaching people to think in different ways. Some writers on this subject have rightfully observed that part of education is conformity and conformity is necessary to the perpetuation of society. Without conformity, society could not exist. But education for diversity also means thinking within existing structures and categories, mastering the content of information, but also thinking outside of established parameters and trajectories and stretching those categories where possible. Albert Einstein said “Imagination if more important than knowledge.” Sometimes we have to go beyond the predefined perimeters of knowledge to develop and attain more knowledge. This requires not only imagination but moral courage. It means sometimes risking the ire of our closest friends and acquaintances to go where no man or woman has gone before. Thinking outside of the box as well as the bun can be productive!

Appreciation and celebration of diversity then can begin at the rudimentary level of thought. It is thinking that embraces the status quo but challenges its presuppositions and assumptions to move things forward. It was Werner Eisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty that spurred Robert Oppenheimer to higher heights in his quest for a new understanding and knowledge. Where would Butch be without Sundance, King without Abernathy, Ellington without Strayhorn, Chic Webb without Ella Fitzgerald? Were would Einstein be with Bohr, Simon without Garfunkel, Rogers without Hammerstein.

One of the arguments I level in my book Soul Survivors is how African Americans have embraced the larger culture but also questioned and transcended it in ways that have lead to the creation of a unique culture. As African Americans, we have synthesized Europe, America and Africa into a paradigm that affirms the higher values of those existing cultures but rises above them in the creation of other cultures that are inclusive of them all. The creation of Jazz is a case in point, which is a curious blend of the polyrhythms and innovations of African culture with the structures and symmetry of European musical traditions. African Americans have been taught to think within and to think without these various configurations of culture and thinking to create a very unique culture.

The same may be said of other groups who think in ways that embrace the larger culture but also question and transcend it.

A former professor, James Ashbrook, in a class discussion about thinking styles, once remarked that any people who have had to think at least twice about being in the world tend in some instances to be more creative. This means having to think about life and reality from more than one point of view. It means valuing those points of view and finding meaning in them.

In the case of black Americans, we have had to view reality through eyes of white people as well as through the eyes of black people. By viewing ourselves through those two points of view as well as through the eyes of God has made for the development of a unique cognitive constellations whose measure contains a within and without. It embraces but transcends the status quo. It is clear, linear logic but it is asymmetrical and fuzzy logic.

W.E.B Dubois called this the twoness of our reality. While for Dubois this twoness has lead to the subordination of Africa to Europe, it is my contention that this twoness has also lead to cultural dexterity; an ability to move in more than one world and see things from more than one point of view. Thinking does not always have follow a particular line of thought. Honoring and appreciating diversity starts with appreciating different forms of thinking and new or different ideas.

A problem with modern education is that it has not yet caught up with different types of learning and different types of thinking. We don’t all think or learn alike. There are different ways of going at this. Rather than devalue someone who learns or thinks differently we ought to find creative ways to understand and challenge them to grow.

Learning to develop an appreciation for diverse levels of thinking is very important. We have rule in my household. Every one is entitled to his or her own opinion. Each person has the right to express that point of view whether we agree or disagree. Each person should learn to listen to those various points of view without valuing or devaluing them. Listening then is not always to confirm what we already think we know, but to listen to discover something we don’t know. One is listening to confirm or corroborate knowledge. The other is listening to discover new knowledge.

III. This brings me to my third point in appreciating diversity. We must refrain from labeling things as bad or good because they are different.

There are different points of view and that’s it. They are not bad or good. They are different. When we like something we call it good. When we dislike something we call it bad. I like jazz. You like Country Music. Country music is not bad. It is different. It is another way of telling a story and viewing reality. It is a different narrative. Jazz is not bad. It is different. It is another way of telling a story and viewing reality. Its narrative style does not disqualify the universality of its message.

But each of us is conditioned by society and culture so view the world and its people through the predetermined lenses and categories that are often biased in favor of our own self interests and the interests of who Stephanie Wildman and Adrienne Davis call the privileged; those with the power to name, value and define reality in accordance with the dominant narrative. Value is given to those whose story most conforms with the dominant narrative.

“Examining privilege reveals that the characteristics and attributes of those who are privileged group members determine what is normal in society. This normalization of privilege means that members of society are judged, succeed or fail, measured against the characteristics that are held by the privileged. The privileged characteristic comes to define the norm. Those who stand outside are the aberrant or alternative.”

The philosopher Krishnamurti says we must learn to see and listen in new ways without the labels that condition our seeing. We are pre-conditioned says, Immanuel Kant, to see things apriori, prior to experience, in accordance with predetermined structures and grids of consciousness that guide and influence our experience and interpretation of reality. Kant differentiates between apriori before experience and aposteriori after experience.

Learning to listen and really hear different points for view without devaluing those points of view is an important gift in promoting diversity. But too often we can’t even get to hearing the point of view because we have already predetermined, labeled or even devalued the person before even hearing that point of view. We never get to the point of truly listening and appreciating one another because we are filled with so many preconceived notions and personal prejudices about the value, worth and your listening eligibility, your worthiness to be listened to, so to speak.

Can I look at you and see you as much more than what society has defined you? Can I look at you without putting a label or value on you without even knowing you? Can I look at you and appreciate you and hear you without prejudice and bias? For whatever society has said about you, it is only a description of you and not a complete definition of you! For you are so much more than what others have said about you and so much greater than how society has categorized you. Can I shed the ignorance and fear that has guided my thinking about you and experience you as you truly are? We must develop the power to not only look and truly see but also to listen and truly hear.

Learning to appreciate different people, means learning to appreciate different types of thought and learning to appreciate different types of thinking means that I learn to listen without judgment; listen without preconceived stereotypes and notions of who you are; listen without putting labels on you so that I can ultimately discard you, marginalize and devalue you as a human person.

It would seem to me that affirming diversity starts at the very fundamental level of just appreciating in the words of Jean Paul Sarte, “The other as other.”

Everyone is a person. Everyone has something of infinite value he or she can teach that will help someone else live and grow. Everyone has a unique gift he or she can contribute to make the whole better. Everyone has a story that he or she should be allowed to live and tell that has power, meaning and worth and value not only for them but also for us if we could just sit still long enough to listen.

Can you imagine a world where various persons were allowed the free, unbridled use of their talents and gifts for the betterment of humanity and the advancement of society? Can you imagine a world where we truly listened to each other? Can you imagine a world where we could affirm the other as other, enter into their stories and see ourselves as them.

Diversity means precisely this. There is strength in diversity. There is excellence in the strength we derive from diversity.

Can you imagine where we would be now if more women were permitted to use their gifts, more Native Americans or African Americans or Italian Americans or Muslims or other people of color and other sexual orientations were given unfettered access to the resources and powers of society and higher education? Maybe we would have cure for all cancer and other diseases and maladies that truly afflict us. Maybe we would be much further along in our progress as humanity and civilizations if people learned to listen without putting down or throwing away a person because he or she is different. If we could enter their story, find ways into their narratives and discover ourselves in those stories and see ourselves and find meaning in them, we would find our common ground.

My father used to say “when everybody does better, everybody does better.”

Excellence in diversity is more than recognizing people of other races, cultures and persuasions, it is creating a society that promotes and models diversity and appreciation at the most rudimentary levels of society. In the home. In our schools. In our places of work and in our houses of worship.

It begins in the home and travels outward. How does one develop an appreciation for the intelligence of women growing up in a home where women are subordinated and abused? We do it by discarding old thinking, and transforming ourselves into learners, people open to doing better and getting better. One writer said “that even those with bad manners can teach us now not to act and point the way to good manners.”

So much of public and private discourse is replete with value laden language that denounces and devalues others and their points of view because they are different or because of personal histories of conflict with those others.. Much of this denunciation is entrenched in fear, and pain and ignorance. The condemnation leads to a disqualification of other persons not only because of what they are saying but because of who is saying it.

If we as a nation are going to truly move forth in building diversity into every aspect of our lives together, we must value each other’s story.

IV. Finally, we must create the space that will allow others to share their story and we must find the courage to enter into those stories to find meaning and purpose for our own lives. We must have the moral courage to enter into the stories of others, find our place in them and invite them into ours.

By entering those stories and seeing ourselves in them we create the context for the emergence of true human solidarity. By entering into the stories of ourselves and seeing and finding ourselves, we can invite them into ours to attain the same result.

Not unity based on race, gender, creed or religion, but unity based on values, beliefs, and the things we hold in common. If I can hear your story and find my place in it, I can establish that common ground with you so essential to diversity. If you can hear my story and find your place in it, identify something within it, you can establish common ground with me.

In closing let me summarize some key points.

If we are to build excellence in diversity, we must appreciate the variety of all creation. This variety makes our very consciousness possible. For we would not be able to apprehend the world without the variety of structures, colors, textures and terrains. This diversity permeates the created order. It was part of God’s master plan that we would be similar but wholly different.

If we are to build excellence in diversity, we must affirm the variety of human thought and thinking, the different ways in which people learn and grow. We are all the same but we are all different. We must learn to appreciate at the basic human level people’s right to think their thoughts, to express themselves openly and differently without being dismissed, devalued or discarded.

If we are to build excellence in diversity, we must teach people to listen to others who are different without prejudging or disqualifying people on the basis of pre-constructed social categories and prejudices. Because they are different or because we fear them or don’t really understand them are not good reasons to denounce, discard or destroy them.

We must avoid the social philosophy that demonizes people and groups of people and halo-izes or angelizes others. All Muslims are not terrorists. All white people are not racists. All black people are not criminals. All Latinos are not … All people of Middle Eastern descent are not warmongers. We must learn to listen and see and discover and truly learn beyond the superficial social categories and labels that alienate and divide and polarize and destroy.  We must find ways of entering into the stories of others, of inviting them into ours and celebrating our common ground.

The power of story cannot be overestimated. Each of us is a uniquely created person with a story to tell. We must learn to take pride in our stories, share them and celebrate them. Highlight their uniqueness and celebrate their universality as they are part of a larger American story and a greater human story. We must learn to see, listen and hear without devaluation because others are different. We must learn to share our stories and narratives, identify with others who are uniquely different and see ourselves as part of their stories. Then and only then can we truly have diversity; a diversity that embraces differences but transcends differences; a diversity that promotes racial, cultural and ethnic appreciation; a diversity that contributes to the robust exchange of ideas essential to quality education; a diversity that breaks down barriers among individuals of different races, and improves academic performance; a diversity that celebrates all of life in its infinite varieties and lives that appreciation in ways that will help us see our common ground. It is a diversity that says you have your story and have a right to tell. Let me enter in and see something of myself in you and you in myself that will truly make us one as we live and think and have our lives together.

The words written by Emma Lazarus inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty says it best: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door?

This is America to me. Breaking down walls, fighting for fairness, making life better and nicer, caring and sharing.

And in the words of poet Langston Hughes: Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed. Let America be!

Thank you.

2 responses to “Telling Our Stories: Toward the True Meaning of Diversity, Equality and Excellence in American Society”

  1. Dr. Chaunda Scott Avatar
    Dr. Chaunda Scott

    Wow ~ Pastor Stewart. What a great lecture. It was my pleasure to read this today. Its ironic too that faculty members at OU that were in attendance at the 2009 “Diverse Voices Conference” are still talking about how wonderful your speech was. Just last week at a dinner I attended your “Diverse Voices Conference” speech was a topic of glowing conversation! Again, Pastor Stewart, I want to thank you for supporting me and “My Diverse Voices Conference” work which has been one of my greatest contributions to academia over the past 14 years as an Associate Professor/Graduate Coordinator, Master Teacher, Workforce Diversity Scholar and most recently, Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusion -Office of the Dean. It is also especially gratifying when my students enjoy “The Diverse Voices Conferences” as much as I do! Be Blessed!

    Dr. Chaunda L. Scott
    A Thought for Every Day:

    1. cfstewart Avatar

      I cannot thank you enough for your visionary leadership and the many ways that you inspire us all to be better and more sensitive to the gifts and graces of all of God’s children. It is your voice and vision that provide a larger initiative for work in the area of diversity in our community and world. Thank you so much for all that you do and keep up the outstanding work. You are blazing great trails and your book is a seminal work in this area. Thanks again. Rev.

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