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How to Embrace Diversity When You Have None, or Very Little

Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill addressed the annual Nonprofit Day conference hosted on Oct. 24, 2017, by The Nonprofit Partnership at the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie, Pennylvania. His remarks as prepared for delivery, with light edits, are provided below.

As many of you in the audience know well, Chautauqua Institution is a nonprofit community whose mission is currently exemplified through a nine-week summer season, where we celebrate the best in human values through the arts of nearly every type and manifestation, educational experiences, a wide array of recreation activities and programs, and through interfaith exploration.

We’ve been described by others in many different ways, however:

  • Our friends at WQLN will like this one: “Disneyland for NPR listeners”;
  • “A vacation resort for intellectuals”;
  • And, more vaguely: “That place where they have lectures.”

We are in the process of more intentionally managing the narrative about Chautauqua, not only to clarify for ourselves and the world why we exist and why you should care, but also because we have a distinctive and important mission and calling — crafted by a businessman and a bishop nearly 150 years ago.

Chautauqua exists to equip our community members — every person who visits Chautauqua — to make the world a better place through a mix of activities that challenge the mind, enrich the spirit and feed the soul.

The context for all our activities is civil discourse — and a concept we’ve been calling a “muscular civil dialogue.” We specifically challenge our community members to make a commitment to listening with the intent to understand, questioning to enhance shared meaning, and engaging with “the other” based on points of agreement — embracing both ambiguity and differences of opinion. This context is what enables us to convene great and critical conversations, including those that address some of the world’s most pressing issues.

As we have focused on this mission and context over the past year, it has become apparent to me that this work is more important than ever, that Chautauqua — while a celebrated part of the lives of thousands who visit each summer — has a greater calling, one that can help this country and perhaps the world find more effective ways of negotiating conflict of all descriptions — those in our communities and across the globe.

  • Those that are building walls between nations and citizens;
  • Those that confound scientists who seek cures to cancer and other diseases, and solutions to environmental challenges that threaten human existence;
  • Those that divide groups based on faith perspectives and beliefs; and
  • Those that emerge as hate based on any number of differences that serve as flashpoints and lighting rods.

As we envision this larger purpose, we know it needs to emerge from what occurs on the grounds of Chautauqua — and all that has occurred there over the past century and a half. We also know that to do this work in the world with authority and credibility — for us to create a model for others to emulate — we must get it right at Chautauqua first.

And, while we are proud of so many accomplishments that this unique community and organization has made — that one golden ring we have sought for decades but that has eluded us is the achievement of diversity in our community.

I have asked our leadership team and our entire community repeatedly over the past year: How can Chautauqua claim to convene some of the most important conversations in our world today — when critical partners in those conversations are not at the table, in our pulpits, on our porches and on the iconic brick walk that runs like a vein through our historic grounds?

This graph tells you everything you need to know about the work that is before us at Chautauqua. This is a snapshot of the ethnicity of our long-term guests in 2016.

What is not reflected here is the diversity of other members of our community — those in our music, dance and art schools; those in our orchestra and our opera and theater companies; those on the staff of our daily newspaper; and the nearly 1,000 seasonal employees who help us manage and stage some 2,000 events and programs each summer.

If we added these groups to the mix, it would look slightly, but not significantly different.

So, we have a very long way to go. I heard from a program partner recently that they have invested significant resources into diversifying their stakeholder base, and have not moved the needle — not one bit.  They wonder if it’s a hurdle they will ever overcome.  They don’t know if they can sustain their efforts in the interest of diversity.

This caused me to take a step back and say: “Achieving an optimal mix — whatever that looks like — is a long game.” It’s generational work.  It will not happen in two, three or maybe even 10 seasons for us. 

So, what do we do in the meantime? What would make a difference in this quest to achieve diversity?

What do we mean by diversity, anyway?

I get it that it may appear as a bit risky for me — a white guy, a member of the most privileged of privileged classes — to be standing before a group of colleagues talking about diversity. What do I know about diversity?

I think we first need to take a step back and create a shared understanding of what we mean when we talk about diversity — and what shared visions we might want to create to enhance the diversity of our workplaces, boards, and the forums we create.

That’s where we are at Chautauqua — in the process of defining exactly a vision for diversity at the organization. Let me be clear to say: this is not to water down or create the justification of a “proxy” for diversity, such that, “Oh well, we can’t get black folks or Muslims to come to Chautauqua in any significant numbers, so we’re going to define our own ‘version of diversity.’” I want to underscore: That’s not what I’m talking about.

What I am saying is — it’s not a good idea to assume we are all saying the same thing, or that we all have the same vision of diversity. So, we are being intentional about defining our vision for and definition of diversity. 

I am suggesting to you as colleagues, if you haven’t done this important work, take a step back and survey your leadership team; survey your staff and other stakeholders. Ask them how they define diversity and where they think you’re going as an organization related to your diversity goals.

How many of you have done this already?

If your organization is like Chautauqua — either in the process of defining your vision of diversity or you’re open to thinking about spending some time on this, I want to share with you some resources and ideas that are helping us to shape our vision and definition.

First: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  While we do this important work of introspection, I made the decision to put a stake in the ground to say: We know diversity is an issue; we believe that attracting larger populations of people who come from different backgrounds and beliefs is important to the sustainability of Chautauqua; and we aren’t going to wait until we have a perfect definition or vision to begin the work.

I stated this at my closing speech to the community in August, and, just prior to that, I went to visit two donors who I know had an interest in this topic to gain their insights and to seek their support. The very act of putting that stake in the ground — acknowledging our vulnerability and making the commitment to do something about it — was all these folks needed to hear. They not only made a major gift to help us bring people of color to the grounds over the next five years, but they pledged resources for us to hire experts to help us create our vision and plan. 

So, the very act of saying "This is a priority" — and we know we have huge mountains to climb — literally created resources to help us pursue this important work. I would bet that every one of the organizations in this room has patrons who will support you in similar ways; perhaps some of you have had a similar experience to mine.

The other reason why this “white guy” has the power and ability to stand before you and talk about diversity is that I must. It’s my responsibility as a leader, as a person who has the opportunity to stand behind a microphone now and then, and as a human on the planet. And, if I didn’t know that before, one of our visiting lecturers this summer, author, historian and powerful voice behind the Black Lives Matter movement Shaun King lit a fire under me. Please watch:

Shaun speaks so eloquently about the reasons I feel it’s imperative that I serve as a messenger about the importance of diversity. He turns the entire paradigm around: I’m exactly the person who needs to serve as a spokesperson on this issue. We all have a role in this … and a responsibility.

The very fact that you are here today says that you enjoy some level of privilege.  The very act of embracing the power of your own voice and action will make a difference — it already is. 

Why does it matter?

I suppose, to this point in my talk, I have made an assumption. I’ve assumed that everyone in this room understands the importance of diversity and, as the description of my talk asserts, many or most of us champion diversity as a strategic priority and core value.

I am willing to bet, though, that even though words to this effect have found their way to your governing documents, your mission statements and your strategic plans, there are likely some in your organizations or on your boards or among your stakeholder groups who think you’re talking mostly about numbers and percentages. There may even be some who think that achieving representation is the end game.

While that may have been the case in the past and, trust me, numbers are important and a great place to start. But, I think we all need to do a better job of articulating the real meaning and value that diversity brings to our tables — and to create shared understanding of why this work is hard — and why we all must wake each day with it at the front of our thinking.

A dear friend of mine and one of my earliest thought partners at Chautauqua, Dr. Eboo Patel, the founder and CEO of Interfaith Youth Core, describes the depth and nature of this work particularly well. One piece of decoding is necessary to understand this segment of his talk: he refers a couple of times to hoarding potatoes and carrots, because earlier in his talk he shared the story of “Stone Soup.”  In the interest of time, I cut that piece out, but I think you can still get the meaning.  Please watch.

The people in this room are the very people Eboo is speaking of, and — this is why the theme of our day together is so very important: "The Power of People."

The lecture clips I shared with you today are accessible on Chautauqua’s new “Online Grounds,” available at When you get there, if you search "The Power of People," you will find the Shaun King and Eboo Patel’s clips that I showed today along with the full length of their talks and several others we’ve collected for this group that we hope you will find to be valuable resources for you and your teams. You can listen to them on your way to or from work, or perhaps use them to help launch conversations with your colleagues, board members or other groups that you wish to engage around your pursuit of diversity. There is no charge to access these and many other resources at our online grounds. You’ll only be asked to provide your name and email address to log in.

I am convinced the solutions to the challenges we all face can be created and discovered most effectively in diverse communities. In the absence of diversity — or — while we strive to achieve diversity, — I believe these solutions can be pursued effectively in relatively homogenous communities that are doggedly intentional about making up for the gaps that exist, not as a "nice to have"; not as a politically or socially motivated obligation; but because you know your mission will be more deeply fulfilled and your outcomes more productive because of this intentionality.

How can we make up gaps?

I’d be interested to know how you are doing it, but we are creating advisory groups in some of our key areas (religion, literary arts, and diversity and inclusion). Advisory groups are sometimes easier to form because the obligations are less stringent than foundation boards or boards of trustees. They can change as the issues and needs change, and you can be more liberal in the ways in which you facilitate engagement, using online tools for remote participation, for example.

At Chautauqua, we’re also focusing intently on programming, ensuring we not only present a balanced range of perspectives, but that we use the resources we have to bring in speakers and presenters as a vehicle to support our community’s diversity vision. If you want a diversity of thought, those folks who make up diverse populations must see themselves and their stories in your core programming, communications and intentions. 

And, as we engage with these partners, we are very transparent about the challenges we face and our vision for the future. We are being unapologetic about our need for help. It’s amazing what people will do for you when you ask them for help.

The authentic pursuit of diversity as part of your mission will engage people in deep and meaningful ways; in ways that will call them to invest their time, talent and treasure and, in doing so, will lead you to find solutions to the intractable problems of our time. 

It is an honor to be on this journey with you. Thank you.

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