Another Argument for Diversity

iqoncept, via Flickr

Social workers talk quite a bit about diversity, really. Our Code of Ethics has strong language about respect for marginalized populations, and our Council of Social Work Education’s standards for courses include pretty strong language requiring inclusion of diversity. In my course evaluations every semester, students are specifically asked if I’ve done enough to include content on diverse populations.

And that’s all absolutely good and important.

But, lately, I’ve been thinking that we maybe rely too much on “it’s the right thing to do” kinds of arguments, when talking about the importance of diversity, instead of coupling that moral imperative with a discussion of the wisdom of diversity, as a matter of group performance and organizational excellence. After all, we know from advocacy that we make the best arguments when we appeal to both heart and head–why this is the right thing and why it’s the smart thing–and, in pushing our profession and our organizations to reflect more of the diversity around us, maybe that parallel track approach would help too.

Because we need some work, honestly. Again, we talk a good game, but the truth is that our profession and the organizations in which we work still don’t fully embrace the full range of the diversity we serve. We still, too often, relegate the perspectives of people of color, people from other language backgrounds, people of diverse sexual orientations, people of different abilities, to a “special”, side track, rather than completely accounting for what we still need to do to be the diversity we so value (because, yes, that means aggressive Affirmative Action programs and targeted recruiting practices and lots of other initiatives that take money and hard work).

In the book, The Wisdom of Crowds, which I picked up because you know how much I super-love crowdsourcing, the author presents some really fascinating research about how calculated diversity within groups does far more than just look good on an annual report: it absolutely helps the group to make better decisions.

The book is worth reading, especially if you like reading about psychological experiments (!), but, essentially, in terms of this topic, what the research he presents finds is that a group of people, working on a problem from their own diverse perspectives, can come up with better solutions, most of the time, than any one individual (even a really smart one with a lot of knowledge about the problem), or, usually, even a group of really smart people from the same perspective.

A lot of the reasons for those results align with the moral arguments social workers make about diversity: people are shaped by their own backgrounds and experiences, which make them approach problems differently and reach different conclusions. So, bringing people together who come from very different backgrounds and different interests can, in and of itself, increase the likelihood of getting a good decision.

But this kind of diversity doesn’t just mean checking off different boxes for race or ethnicity or gender. We’re all embedded in our social context, after all, and that can mean that, even if we come from different places, spending a lot of time together can start to make us converge on the same (even if really bad) decisions.

And we can’t afford those bad decisions. We’ve got to figure out how to best support low-income working mothers, what kinds of housing options work best for those leaving homelessness, what kids leaving foster care need to succeed. Solving those problems will mean approaching them with fresh minds, not foregone conclusions, and there are too many examples, from social work and beyond, of tightly-knit groups of rather similar people being blind to considerations that influenced their decision, sometimes with tragic results.

That means that, if we want real organizational excellence, then we have to continually solicit the participation of new people, from new perspectives. Certainly some of our volunteers and even the general public can be part of this process, but it seems fairly obvious that developing a good system for endowing our clients with real decision-making roles is the surest way to institutionalize the kind of diversity that can lead to success.

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