Ron Lindsay asked for input going into a meeting of national secular organizations.
Specifically, I’d like your input on these two questions: 1. What specific steps do you think secular groups should take to increase diversity within our movement, in particular with respect to the participation of minority groups? 2. As you are aware, there are some stark differences of opinion within the movement about the appropriate understanding of feminism and how feminism (however defined) should influence the practices and mission of secular organizations. How do you think these differences can best be narrowed or resolved?
The second question is not an easy one to answer from the perspective of what national organizations can do, so I’ll give that one more thought before answering. The first is one of those things I talk about and promote other people talking about, so I have things to say. I started to get long-winded and detailed, so I’m moving my answer here. Luckily, Ron promised to read even treatises.
Note that when mention an action below, it isn’t because I don’t think anyone is doing it now. This is a general statement, some of which comes from learning from organizations’ successes.
The first step organizations need to take toward improving diversity is breaking the idea down. “Diversity” is a nebulous concept that will lead to vague goals or actions at best. Reframe the question in terms of underrepresentation instead.
Look around the communities you serve. Make an effort to see everyone who is there. If you operate on a national level, look at census data. If you operate on a local level, spend some time walking in different parts of town or looking at the events featured in neighborhood newsletters. Figure out what your community looks like away from the areas you usually see.
Now look at your organization and its events. Run a survey if you don’t have a good handle on your demographics. Where are the differences? Notice them, but consider them value-neutral for the moment. Don’t stop at race and gender. Consider education. Consider income and profession. Consider marital status. Consider disabilities. Consider sexuality. Consider religion.
When you have a list of characteristics that aren’t present or are underrepresented in your organization compared to the community you serve, ask yourselves what each offers you. Put aside other considerations for the moment and be selfish. You need to know why–beyond “because it’s right”–you’re working on diversity if you’re going to put time and energy into the problem. Do different people offer knowledge or skills you lack? Do they offer passion about an issue under your mission? Do they offer political clout or good PR? Do they offer numbers? Do they offer organizational experience or willingness to volunteer?
Now ask yourself what you have to offer each underrepresented group. This is harder than you think. You know what you offer your current membership. If you didn’t, your organization wouldn’t be as successful as it is. However, if your current offer were compelling to these underrepresented groups, they would be less underrepresented.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t have what an underrepresented group is looking for, but it probably means you at least don’t treat those features of your organization as selling points. Are your local meetings in wheelchair-accessible, vegetarian- or vegan-friendly, family-friendly locations easily reached by mass transit? If they are, do you tell people when you advertise the events? Do you sponsor ex-Muslim speakers or speakers who specifically address issues of labor or poverty? Do you offer special programs or pricing for students or people in poverty? Do you offer volunteer opportunities in urban (or rural!) areas? You may already have exactly what an underrepresented group is looking for, but you might not be telling people or you may not be taking the opportunity to advertise directly to people who would benefit.
Alternately, you may not currently offer much of interest to these groups. That isn’t necessarily hard to change. Secular organizations, like most political activism groups, tend to overrepresent the status quo in everything but the issue at stake–in this case, religion. However, secular organizations have an advantage that they don’t use as often as they might. Religion has long been a tool to reinforce and uphold the status quo. There are very few, if any, underrepresented groups who won’t produce productive answers to the questions “How has religion been used to keep you ‘in your place’ or tell you you’re worth less?” and “How is it being used now?” (Note that these are different questions than “How does religion…?”) People will tell you where the problems you can address are.
Only then is it time to make decisions about actions you’re going to take, when you know who and what you want and what you have to offer. Specifics will depend on the organization’s priorities, of course, but they should be much easier to determine at that point.
There is still one issue worth addressing in some detail, however. That’s the problem of managing change and the conflicts that come with change. As a movement, secularism has been all over the map in how it has handled this issue. There have been stellar responses to conflicts and dismal responses. If we want to decrease the dismal responses, it’s time to start planning for conflict.
Do you want your group to incorporate a more diverse membership? Then plan for inclusion. Plan how you will handle the current members who, for example, treat each woman who walks in the door as a dating prospect or each ethnic minority as answerable for their entire group. Decide how you’ll deal with the existing members who treat differences in perspective as challenges to their intellect. Decide–now–how you want to deal with all the behaviors that you’ve been told repeatedly are barriers to participation.
Or decide that those are integral to your membership (or too difficult to deal with directly) and find another way. Your organization doesn’t encompass all of the movement now. It doesn’t have to in the future. You may be more effective on issues of diversity if you work in partnership. Want to sponsor a feminist, atheist speaker? Do so in conjunction with a reproductive rights group. Bring your members together on more even ground. Sponsor a talk on cool science in an inner-city high school with a good enrichment program. Pick up the tab for a biblical scholar with a UU community. Hold a discussion group on how the New Testament glorifies poverty with a labor organization or the influences of Puritan asceticism with a drug legalization organization. Make partners rather than asking people to come to you.
Another note while you’re doing that: Make sure that speakers from underrepresented groups (or writers, for organizations that have publications) aren’t only given space when they’re talking about diversity. This happens a lot, and while it talking about diversity occasionally is a very good thing, there are three problems with this:
- Talks about diversity don’t appeal to a diverse audience. Most underrepresented groups already understand the value of diversity. They’d rather see someone who “look like” them talk about something else.
- Consistently having speakers from an underrepresented group talk about issues of diversity undercuts that group’s perceived authority on other topics. “All ABC ever talk about is XYZ. They’re just distracting us from the real work.” Sound familiar?
- We’re allowing a wealth of talent to lie fallow. I would love to hear Tony Pinn talk about secular liberation theology the next time I see him on stage (because huh?). However, I know I’ll be sharing a stage with him in two months to talk about exactly the subject of this post.
Where secularism is just starting to make real inroads on an underrepresented population, consider whether your organization might be best able to help by supplying resources to a specialized group. A small grant can go a long way in a small organization, for meeting space or advertising. Having an experience organization leader on an advisory board, particularly if that person can say, “Here’s what we did”, instead of, “Here’s what you need to do”, can be incredibly useful. Other kinds of expertise, such as experience in navigating the bureaucracy of nonprofits, is helpful. So is putting events on calendars that reach a broad audience.
In short (hah!), plan for diversity the way you would for any other broad mission in your organization. Break it down, figure out your goals and resources, and look ahead for the obvious roadblocks. It isn’t easy, but it isn’t something you have to–or can–do all at once anyway.