When my youngest started kindergarten, I wondered if she would make friends easily.

She entered the classroom to a group of strangers, lacking the typical ties that bind a small town together. No day care or church connections with the children in the class. Neighborhood kids were older. On the second day when she arrived home and proudly announced she had made a best friend, I was both relieved and thrilled.

As the year unfolded, I realized she had naturally gravitated to a little girl exactly like her. They were both quiet and shy. They both liked to wear bows in their hair and pretty dresses. From all appearances, they were entirely content to live within the world of just the two of them. They needed no other friends.

Imagine our surprise when entering first grade to learn the girls were separated into different classrooms. I was caught off guard. I should have warned her this could happen.

I braced myself for a rocky year filled with tears and lamenting over the absence of her best friend. Instead, I started hearing stories of reading group and playground chases with a little boy sporting a mohawk. She still played with her kindergarten best friend and gave her hugs in the pickup lane after school. From all appearances, though, my daughter had expanded what was once a very tight circle of comfort.

The Harvey County United Way board of directors recently began work on organizational diversity and inclusion. I prepared a long overdue presentation, primarily because of my personal unwillingness to slow down and take a careful look at what diversity means for us.

Over the years, select board and committee members have raised the issue of the need for diversity. United Way Worldwide similarly enforces the importance, asking in the annual membership certification document, “Does your United Way adhere to a locally developed and adopted statement to ensure volunteers and staff broadly reflect the diversity of the community it serves?”

The membership application goes on to ask if the board reviews the statement, and if the board reviews the organization itself for compliance with the statement. Both are conducted every two years.

Every year I click the box marked “yes” and move on to the next project. This year, though, the board decided to take a deeper dive into those two membership requirements. The resulting conversation was both informative and inspiring.

First, we must understand the difference between diversity and inclusion. The two are not interchangeable terms. Simply put, diversity is what makes us different or unique, and inclusion is the feeling of value, respect, acceptance and worth.

Second, we must take a closer look at the market we serve. Harvey County United Way serves the residents of the county, which means census data is available to quantify the most commonly recognized forms of diversity (www.census.gov).

A fourth of the population is under the age of 18, and 20% is over the age of 65. Most of the respondents (93%) identify as “white,” which includes 12% of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. Predictably, English is the primary language spoken in the home, although 7.6% indicated another language is used.

There are 2,044 veterans living in Harvey County. Almost 9% of the population under the age of 65 is living with a disability.

The median household income is $55,687, leaving 9% of the respondents with income qualifying Federal Poverty guidelines. Most (91%) completed high school, and 30% hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of those 16 and over, 65% are employed, and the average commute to work is 19 minutes.

A review of this data led to a healthy conversation about the current composition of our board, committees and event volunteers. While we have made concerted efforts in recent years to recruit young professionals to the board, could we extend board or committee membership to teenagers? What are we doing to reach individuals of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity? What about other definitions of diversity, including skills sets and city of residence?

Bringing people of diverse backgrounds to the virtual table is only half of the process. Once they are there, what are we doing to make sure we hear their voices? Are we creating a safe space to share thoughts, ideas and opinions?

The meeting concluded with a list of ideas to explore and revisions to make to the existing diversity statement. The overarching concept, though, is clear. The only way to know if we are serving our market well is if we include the market in the process.

One board member left me with an important personal takeaway. How often do we find ourselves in groups, boards, committees with people who look just like us? What am I doing to expand my circle? Who am I playing with at recess?

 

— Tina Payne is the director of Harvey County United Way. She can be reached at harveycountyunitedway@gmail.com or 316-283-7101.