At the corporation where I work, the management team has embarked on a "journey" of self-discovery as a means to improve our corporate culture. A recent step on this journey included participating in a Managing Work Expectations survey. This exercise was designed to help the participant determine what her workplace expectations are and to prioritize them. The expectations ran the gamut from environment to balance, autonomy to structure, recognition to career growth. The expectation that resulted in the highest score signifying the highest degree of importance for me was diversity.
I was not entirely surprised; I mean, I obviously know diversity is an important issue for me, but ascribing a numerical value to it, and acknowledging that that expectation had risen to the top was interesting. It got me thinking about why diversity was number one and was this an indication that I felt a certain lack of diversity in my workplace, or in my life?
Let me back up just a bit, here. Diversity means different things to different people (that, in itself, is diverse, yes?). My definition expands beyond what I consider the obvious, which is a mix of cultures, religions, genders, races and ethnicities. Diversity, for me, is accepting people for who they are. It is easy, I think, to say you are accepting of others when you are surrounded by folks who are just like you. It is much more of a challenge, and a far more interesting existence, to expose yourself to others who are quite different and to find perhaps after all, your common ground.
I was raised in rather homogenous surroundings, attended an all-female Catholic high school, grew up in the Midwest; white and middle class, so was almost everyone I knew. I am fortunate that my parents are accepting people, both of whom are comfortable with and always intrigued by differences and what they can learn from them. College was Diversity U. for me, providing my first friends of many nations, sexual preferences and beliefs.
My work life has been fairly diverse, as well. While in retail sales I was exposed to all sorts of people and became close friends with several who might have seemed unlikely matches. After college, I worked for a public relations firm where, at one point, I was the only employee who was not Jewish. For once, my Catholicism made me the minority; it felt strange, but I learned once and for all to wish people, "Happy Holidays" during that season.
In recent years, due to a small office and my profession (public relations, these days, attracts mostly women) my existence has returned to a rather homogeneous state. Women who are roughly my age, of similar beliefs, heritage and upbringing, surround me most of the time. I didn't realize how much I missed that daily sense of diversity-at-work.
I've made a choice to live in the suburbs of St. Louis, rather than in the areas of the City or County known for more diverse populations. I live in what, to the untrained eye, would seem a cookie-cutter neighborhood; new, vinyl-sided homes (40 to be exact), only five "elevation" options in the whole lot, pastel shades, green lawns and sparse trees.
There's a kid on a bike in every driveway, a dog running around each back yard. But our neighborhood from day one has been a startling suburban microcosm of diversity, both pleasing and satisfying to my apparently elevated expectation. In the forty, we have African Americans, Caucasians, Mexicans and Asians, at least. We have four mixed-race couples, a homosexual couple, a few older folks and a lot of young families. There are twenty-six children of all different shades, shapes and sizes on my street alone. They all play together sometimes nicely, sometimes not, just like you'd expect.
On a warm Sunday as the house behind us hosted a barbecue, our windows were open to the neighborly sounds. Spring reminds me that I may be in suburbia, in my cookie-cutter house, but the language drifting in through the window was Spanish, and my children are living within my expectation: accepting and indeed, taking for granted, that people are different, everywhere you go.
Marijean Jaggers is a writer and St. Charles resident. She is a stalwart defender of suburbia despite the ridiculous commute.