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Diversity: What Does a 21st Century Community Feel Like?

By Heather Van Poucker

Back in February, my husband and I went to Royal Oak for a night out. It was snowing and cold, but the streets were packed with pedestrians. We could only drive 20 mph going through downtown because people were crossing everywhere, the cars were bumper-to-bumper. We had to wait fifteen minutes to get a parking spot, which wasn’t even close to our destination, but we were grateful to get it!

There were strange-looking teenagers with interesting body piercings skateboarding around, the twenty-somethings were all decked out, walking in packs and considering which coffee house/bar/brewery/pub to start their evening, and just ahead of us a same-sex couple held hands, window shopping. We “older folks” in our late thirties and early forties just took it all in, tried to remember what it was to be that young, and contemplated which restaurant to choose…sushi, Mediterranean, Thai, seafood, barbeque, Mexican, Italian…so much food, so little time!

All of these groups had different tastes and agendas—Royal Oak accommodated them all. There was nothing generic about the experience. People looked different in terms of their race, ethnicity, and dress, which ranged from punk rock leather, to Michelle Obama preppy, to club chic, to turbans, to saris, to frumpy “I’m too old to care.” I’ll let you guess where I fit!

What People Want

This is the experience that people crave...the hustle and bustle of a thriving downtown, the mix of ages, races, ethnicities, the wide variety of activities, the freedom and spontaneity, and the feeling that you are part of something energetic, exciting and unique.

This is what a 21st century community feels like, and diversity is central to its success. Our Royal Oak experience would have been quite different if we’d had seven steak restaurants to choose from and everyone walking the street looked like us, sounded like us, and had the same interests as us. It would have been bland and boring!

In terms of the broader economy, it is important to recognize that today’s global economy centers around an extremely diverse global workforce that is fluid, mobile, willing and able to locate where the talent and climate is right. In order for Michigan’s communities to be seen as the “right place” for businesses of the future, many factors must be carefully tended, one of which is creating and sustaining a genuine commitment to diversity and multiculturalism.

That means more than simple tolerance or acceptance of diversity in the places we live, work, and play. It means that communities that celebrate diversity and multiculturalism as a central asset will be much more successful in recruiting the global businesses of the future and the key talent they seek and employ. These communities will be seen as “the right kind of place” for global businesses and local entrepreneurs to invest.

Diversity Is a ‘Salad Bowl’

For a great example of how a community is leveraging diversity as a key asset, check out Farmington Hills’ video, “Diversity: Many Faces, One Community” available on our website, www.mml.org/resources/educenter/diversity. One speaker in the video astutely observes that our country and our communities are no longer a “melting pot” where the expectation is that we all blend together, giving up our unique heritage to create a new one. Rather, diversity today means we are more like a “salad bowl” where all the different ingredients combine harmoniously to create something wonderful, while maintaining their distinctiveness. I don’t like salad, but I love that analogy! It reminds me of Michigan’s unique, authentic communities, which shouldn’t have to become “generic” to succeed. It is our uniqueness that makes us special, as individuals and as a community. Those places that successfully leverage diversity will become progressive, enlightened, and highly competitive communities for the 21st century.

Creating a Climate Ripe For Innovation

Frans Johansson, author of the best-selling book, The Medici Effect, extols the virtue of diversity for creating what he calls an “explosion of innovation.” He suggests that by commingling ideas and people from varying cultures, professional fields and educational disciplines, you can create the right climate for groundbreaking innovation. According to Johansson, “It’s possible to create in today’s communities the same kind of climate that existed in Florence, Italy, 500 years ago when the Medici family brought together creative people, broke down barriers, and ushered in the Renaissance.” A Renaissance sounds really good right about now, and if leveraging diversity can help in achieving that, let’s not delay!

Immigrants Create 21st Century Jobs

Vivek Wadhwa is a successful entrepreneur who has been named a "Leader of Tomorrow" by Forbes.com; his tech company has been named one of the 25 "coolest" companies in the world by Fortune Magazine. He is a fellow at Harvard Law School and executive in residence/adjunct professor at Duke University. He leads groundbreaking research into globalization and one of America’s greatest competitive advantages—its skilled immigrants. The man has credentials! He is also a foreign immigrant and observes that in the U.S. we fear immigrants because we think they will take our jobs; but, he asserts, educated immigrants will create 21st century jobs.

Educated immigrants are overwhelmingly the source of new patents and start-ups, and they dominate key fields in the global economy such as life sciences, engineering, and information technology. These are people who will add value to our economy and to our communities and we need to provide attractive places for them.

What Does The Future Hold?

Michigan offers some of the richest examples of diverse communities and we have world-renown universities that attract the brightest foreign students. We have the makings for greatness, but some areas continue to struggle with an undercurrent of fear when it comes to cultural and racial diversity. Moreover, many communities continue to view “diversity” solely as a social issue rather than as a critical economic development tool.

Part of our work through the Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3) will highlight the many ways that diversity matters in creating better communities and a better Michigan.

 

Heather Van Poucker is manager of consulting services for the League. You may contact her at hvanpoucker@mml.org or 734-669-6326.

 

 

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