When winter turns to spring, our city is filled with celebrations of our diversity and heritage. Recent holidays including Easter, Passover, St. Patrick’s Day and the just celebrated Cinco de Mayo remind us how our city is enriched by our differences. In the District of Columbia, our mayor talks about uniting all communities in “One City.” Diversity is becoming an ever more important issue for our nation — even if some Americans who don’t live in cities like ours don’t know it yet.
As a District parent and a human resources professional, I am acutely aware of how diversity — adjusting to it and benefiting from it — is becoming increasingly important in our economy and society. The U.S. Census estimates that in 12 years the majority of our nation’s children will identify as members of ethnic groups that were previously considered minorities.
We are already starting to see greater workplace diversity. Since 1980, the white working-age population has declined by 24 percent, while the minority portion of the workforce has doubled, and the number of Latino workers has almost tripled. By 2042, America will have an “minority-majority” population.
Given all this, those who are skilled at working with others of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds will have an advantage. Those who are not will be at a distinct disadvantage.
I want my son to thrive in our multicultural future. But our city, increasingly diverse, is still extremely divided by neighborhoods — not only in terms of where people live, but also in terms of job opportunities and public schools. This narrows people’s horizons and lessens their understanding of how others live and what they can contribute. If he is to make the most of the global economy and its opportunities, then I believe my son must learn how to appreciate difference and understand it.
My aspirations for my child are not that unusual, but where he goes to school may be unique. While the District is 51 percent African American, 39 percent white and 9 percent Latino, my son’s school is 55 percent African American, 35 percent white and 8 percent Latino. Every parent knows how unusual that is, in a city where the school population is often entirely or almost entirely white or African-American. Accordingly, my son has been able to make friends and interact with peers from diverse backgrounds from an early age.
Those benefits aside, research from the University of North Carolina Charlotte reveals that attending a diverse school helps students develop academically as well as socially. This recent academic study found that, when contrasted with their otherwise comparable peers who attend more homogenous schools, students who attend diverse schools are more likely to achieve higher test scores and grades, graduate from high school and attend college.
As part of this, a culturally diverse academic environment also helps promote student achievement in areas such as mathematics, science and language arts. The research concluded that students of every race and socioeconomic background enjoyed the academic benefits of a diverse environment.
My work in human resources shows me how disadvantaged employees are when they lack the skills to work with others of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It’s not simply that diverse environments encourage contact; the resulting diversity of thought and action enable perspectives and solutions that are new to some to be communicated and understood to the benefit of the group.
Two Rivers Public Charter School, which my son attends, emphasizes how students can learn from one another in this way. Through this approach, students are also learning to question assumptions and think more critically about solving problems.
On top of exposing students to new ideas by emphasizing learning through projects and teamwork, Two Rivers teaches students to work together in diverse groups to solve problems. Learning the value of cooperation is one way students understand how they are interconnected to one another, regardless of their differences.
As our country and workplaces become less homogenous, the benefits of diversity need to be more widely understood, including its link to success in our increasingly global economy. At Two Rivers, this is already understood; that is one of the reasons U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently praised the school for making “students feel so supported,” alongside its status as one of D.C.’s 22 high-performing charter schools, ranked by the city’s charter board. Perhaps one day our city be as truly integrated as my son’s school.
Tamara Brown is a parent at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Northeast D.C.
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