Making Diversity Meaningful

Student groups must change the way they think about, and work towards, diversity.

A year ago last February, the Harvard College Democrats decided to do an event for Black History Month, both to honor the spirit of the month and to build ties with black student groups on campus. We gave our monthly movie night a black history focus, and got the Black Students Association (BSA), the Association of Black Harvard Women (ABHW), and the Black Men’s Forum (BMF) to co-sponsor the event. Popcorn popped and DVD cued up, we watched as member after member of our organization flowed into the Dunster House TV room—but not a single student from the co-sponsoring groups arrived.

In too many ways, this attempt is emblematic of efforts to build ties between political and cultural groups at Harvard and of attempts by political groups to foster more diverse memberships: well intentioned, yet ultimately unsuccessful. Student groups’ attempts at establishing cross-cultural links are too often superficial, based mainly on co-sponsorship and publicity campaigns. Upon reflection, it was hard to blame the BSA, ABHW, and BMF members for not showing up—they were partners in our event only in name, and the Dems held a similar event monthly anyway. But rather than an indication that meaningful links are impossible, this experience should serve as a striking reason why campus political groups should seriously reconsider the way they pursue and think about diversity—whether of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or even ideology.

The “traditional approach” treats building more diverse memberships as primarily a problem of publicity, the solution to which entails trying to interest under-represented minorities in the group’s current activities, in order to integrate them into the group’s existing framework. This assumes that the main reason such students wouldn’t get involved with a group is that he or she hadn’t heard of it. To achieve more than superficial gains, however, student groups should consider what motivates a student to get involved with a group in the first place.

In my experience, people who feel directly affected by issues—whether it be of public policy, race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or something else entirely—tend to favor opportunities that allow them to work directly on those particular issues. On the other hand, people who feel less directly impacted by such specific issues are likely to respond to more abstract notions of the value of political participation and to take greater interest in studying and analyzing the political process.

While political groups like the Undergraduate Council (UC), the Institute of Politics, the Dems and others would have trouble mimicking the appeal of single-race or single-gender groups, they would do well to look to examples of initiatives that have successfully drawn students who generally avoid political groups to invest in their cause. The Student Labor Action Movement, for instance, has rallied members of groups who have been traditionally under-represented in political organizations; groups focusing on AIDS, prison reform, poverty, housing policy, and divestment from Sudan have achieved similar results by taking direct action on political issues.

Campus political groups have already taken promising steps. When the Dems have focused on issue advocacy and real-world campaigns, it’s encouraged students beyond the traditional membership to get involved; Students for Marriage Equality, a collaborative effort between the Dems and the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance last spring, brought members of both groups together to work to preserve marriage equality in Massachusetts. When the Institute of Politics, often criticized for a perceived lack of diversity, placed an additional emphasis on its policy program, students who hadn’t been interested in its other programming began to see the IOP as a place where real-world policy could be discussed and advocated.

A few things bear consideration in any discussion of diversity on this campus. First, as important an issue as it is, its direness is occasionally overstated. In my time on this campus, one in five presidents of the Dems has been black—that’s not a huge number, but at 20% it’s significantly higher than the percentage of black students on this campus. Further, women play important leadership roles in a range of organizations, even though men more often serve as president.

Additionally, the argument that cultural, ethnic, and gender groups siphon members off from non-racial or non-gender groups overlooks the fact that very often these groups motivate their members to get involved in other groups. The BMF makes an elaborate effort every year to get its members to run for and be elected to the UC; the UC presidential candidacy of current BMF President Tracy Moore ’06 is the most prominent example of this.

That said, these are reasons to work for continued progress, not to rest on laurels; by considering the way their approach to politics affects the diversity of students who become involved in their organizations, political groups can build memberships whose foundations stretch beyond any particular demographic group. In doing so, they will achieve results that go far beyond the aesthetic: more diverse membership are stronger memberships, allowing members to learn more from each other, and allowing groups to tap abilities and reach minds in all corners of the campus.

Greg M. Schmidt ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.