Diversity and the Company of Strangers

We celebrate diversity, while knowing very little about it. Celebrating the full spectrum of humanity ain’t easy, especially here.

Racial, ethnic, age and gender diversity can be devilishly difficult to attain in a small town that is 90 percent Caucasian. That doesn’t make it less important. In fact, it seems that the groups who howl loudest for the value often are doing the least in practice.

If Eugene had an advocacy group as honest as it was valiant, they would call themselves “White People For Diversity.” The group would incessantly refine diversity’s wikipedia page, contribute articles to leftist magazines and edit books on the important topic for classrooms and scholars. They would defend to the death the rightness of the idea, even if they never quite got around to the rights of the peoples. Then they would adjourn to a different ethnic restaurant each month, where they could congratulate themselves for their progressive rectitude.

Ethnic dining does not diversity make.

Our mothers meant well when they warned us not to trust strangers, but true hospitality requires that we forget that lesson, or temper it with courage. If we really want diversity, strangers can help us more than our friends. But we don’t know any strangers. All we know is not to trust them.

We conspire against our ideal because we rely on self-selection to grow our social networks. Whether it’s a business group, a civic organization, or a political action committee, we rely on members to recruit new members. Our outreach doesn’t reach out.

Like sad replicas of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, a hidden force kicks the hat away from us, just as we’re about to reach it, over and over. We reach for the hat of greater diversity with all the best intentions, but just as it’s almost within our grasp, our own comforting foot of sameness kicks it away. That only increases our resolve, which starts the cycle again.

Members invite new members, but the new members look a lot like the old members. Self-selection favors sameness over diversity. When somebody slips through the cracks and gets invited to a group that isn’t such a natural fit, the friction enforces the original inertia. The extra effort to make that new member feel welcome doesn’t last, and so that new member doesn’t last either. The newbie gets busy and stops coming, or sparks fly and it begins to feel like too much trouble.

You’ve probably never heard of the Round Table Club of Eugene, but it’s been meeting eight months a year for almost a century. It was formed in 1912 to give University of Oregon faculty and staff a connection to whatever intelligentsia may be found in its host city. You might call it Eugene’s original “town-gown” organization, except the all-women Fortnightly Club predates it by decades.

The Round Table Club once was the literal version of the metaphorical “old boys’ network.” Former Eugene Mayor Ruth Bascom gained admittance and broke the gender barrier, but that may have been due to her surgeon husband more than her city hall stature.

Last spring, the club’s leadership embarked on an experiment. They extended invitations for membership to two “classes,” vetted by others. The local Chambers of Commerce put forward two dozen graduates of their annual Leadership Eugene Springfield class. The University of Oregon contributed the names of the three dozen professors granted tenure last spring.

The club braced itself for a jolt. Many of these qualified applicants would be strangers to everyone in the room, except for the others in their “class.” The newbies may have outnumbered the old-timers. Many would be half the age of the average current member.

What happened — or what’s happened so far — has been less dramatic. Fewer than a dozen of the invitees attended the fall’s first meeting, and not all of them chose to pursue membership. Several have.

Will this bring the new blood and diversity the club seeks? It’s too soon to tell. Sidestepping self-selection hasn’t hurt the club, and may yet help it.

Don’t trust strangers for candy, but if you want diversity, ask somebody you don’t know.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has been a member of the Round Table Club of Eugene (www.eugeneroundtable.com) since 2002. He’s the organization’s past-president. He writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.