It’s clear from watching the news that diversity means different things to different people, and talking about diversity evokes widely different responses. While President Trump signed an executive order banning refugees, immigrants, and visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S., Prime Minister Trudeau tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” To some, diversity represents a threat: To others, it’s seen as a gift.
Lest we become smug, self-righteous or complacent as Canadians, we should acknowledge that bigotry and fear of the “other” exist on our side of the border, too. Swastikas spray-painted on a synagogue in Ottawa, a pepper-spray attack on a group of Syrian refugees by a hooded man in Vancouver, and recruiting efforts by the Soldiers of Odin in Hamilton reveal that Canadian society is not immune to racist ideology and intolerance. Yet it feels reassuring to see our religious and community leaders joined by politicians from all levels of government publicly and loudly condemning what might otherwise divide us. Rather than giving in to fear-mongering and communal angst, we are rallying around a shared belief that each and every individual has value.
There’s no denying that living with diversity can bring moments of discomfort as we encounter the unfamiliar or the yet to be understood. Study after study, however, shows that diversity also brings higher levels of innovation, greater creativity, enhanced problem-solving, and stronger financial performance by organizations. But surely it can’t be as simple as putting a variety of people in the same room and assuming all will go well. There must be a set of optimal conditions under which diversity is more likely to emerge as a unifying factor rather than a point of conflict.
Research on organizational culture reveals that diversity acts as a positive factor in environments that are safe, that openly encourage the sharing of different opinions, that welcome novel ideas, allow everyone to participate in decision-making, and give shared credit for success. Employees who work in a “speak up” culture are 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their full potential, and leaders who ensure that diverse voices are heard are more likely to be successful in unleashing their employees’ valuable and important insights.
I think the same conditions that allow diversity to be a force for good in organizations are effective in schools as well. We’ve been working hard at Trafalgar Castle to unleash the incredible power of our community of learners with our different cultures, languages, religions, ideas, experiences, and even our different ages. It’s exciting to see ideas and enthusiasm flourish as we recognize and celebrate the diversity that lives inside our Castle walls.
We are working with thoughtful deliberation to create a safe environment where our girls can talk about, explore, grapple with, and celebrate our differences. What we don’t want to do is just preach tolerance. Instead, we’re finding ways to give equal airtime to diverse perspectives, ideas, opinions, and beliefs, and want each student to know that her voice is important. What we don’t want is a culture where only the loudest, most powerful or most popular voices are heard.
It would be wrong to pretend that tensions don’t sometimes arise when we share our differences, but that’s okay. It would be disingenuous and dangerous to pretend otherwise. Strong school leaders need to guide students through moments that are positive and productive, as well as moments that are emotional and difficult. They are all teachable moments for students and adults alike.
I am heartened by the growing conversation about diversity that is taking place across our country and increasingly within our school. It shows that we are not naïve to the challenges that can arise out of difference but that we are working to realize the upside of diversity. It’s exciting to work with our students as we create a school community where diversity leads to innovation, creativity, and shared learning.