Urging students to become aware of their differences, diversity expert Gary Howard explained the tenets of his plan to address civil rights and social justice issues in a presentation sponsored by the Women's Center Wednesday night, entitled “The Next 50 Years: Creating a Climate of Equity and Respect.”
Howard, who founded the REACH Center for Multicultural Education, leads “Equity Leadership Institutes” to help organizations like NU further the cause of social justice. Wednesday’s workshop included conversations between the 25 students in attendance about the roles of diversity and identity in campus culture.
“There’s a really important distinction between diversity and inclusion. Diversity just exists, [while] inclusion is something you do,” Howard said. “It’s a key to your campus situation because it’s on almost everybody’s screen.”
Howard explained the significance of this awareness in terms of the history of racial policies in the US. “The issue is not the identities we carry, it’s the cultural context of the place we’re in,” he said.
Although affirmative action as commonly understood has been a politicized issue over the past fifty years, Howard sees it as part of a much larger narrative about race.
“I tell my students that 1787 was the nation’s first affirmative action program,” he said. “Who got to vote in 1787? Rich white guys. That’s called affirmative action, and it got written into the founding documents of this country.”
This long-term view of history as defined by racial differences supports Howard’s vision of future institutional change.
“The key concept here is power,” he said. “That’s one of the issues, an institutional question. The personal one is cultural competence.”
During the talk, Howard took several breaks to allow students to discuss their feelings about diversity on campus and in the United States amongst themselves. In these short dialogues, Howard encouraged audience members to discuss their own backgrounds and how they have experienced difference.
“In the race conversation, we tend to shut it down too quick. People tend to self-segregate,” he said.
On the societal level, Howard focused on the attitudes of the white majority. Although he believes many people have become more open to cultural and racial differences, he still sees the country as a long way from where it needs to be.
“You can still grow up in America and not know about cultural difference,” Howard said. “Some people escape difference.”
Many people’s journeys towards greater cultural awareness are figurative, but Howard described his transformation as a physical one that began during his undergraduate years at Yale.
“[Yale] was a major center of the civil rights movement. That’s what opened my eyes,” he said.
Howard started his career as a social justice activist by escaping the confines of the Yale campus on his bike. The ten-minute ride between Yale and the volunteer programs in which he participated turned into a personal quest that he insists is ongoing.
“Yale was kind of a guarded enclave, a castle in the middle of a city,” Howard said. “The ten-minute bike ride became light years in my mind.”
Working with children who grew up in a “third world survival situation” encouraged Howard to complete see the world through a new lens.
“I didn’t know that existed in my country. The world I learned about in high school is not my world,” Howard said. “I was smart, but utterly ignorant in terms of the world I lived in.”
After completing a degree in Cultural Anthropology and Social Psychology, Howard went on to pursue a career in civil rights activism. Today, Howard sees cultural competence as the key component of social justice and awareness of societal diversity.
“The notion that we have very different stories is key. We need to create safe places where we can share stories,” he said.