10 Questions to Ask Ourselves About Diversity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the makeup of interest groups and other constituencies in Chapel Hill lately, and how it reflects upon the diversity of our community. I focus on Chapel Hill, because, well, that’s the local entity I spend the most time following. But the same questions I ask below should be asked at any level of government, and of any organization we associate ourselves with.

This isn’t a criticism of a specific group. A lot of organizations I’ve been involved with through the years wouldn’t score perfectly on this test. The point isn’t to make anyone feel bad, it’s to ask all of us to do better.

I believe strongly in meritocracy, but meritocracy cannot exist in an ecosystem without diversity. To find the best ideas, you need to start by collecting the most ideas.

Anyway, without further ado, here are ten questions I hope that everyone organizing a political group, civic organization, or public input session asks themselves.

  1. How are you incorporating student input into your project? Yes, I’ve been harping on this for ten years. We’re still doing a poor job of it. UNC students make up a sizeable portion of our community. There are almost 30,000 UNC students learning in our community, most of them living here, and two-thirds of them undergraduates. Now, let’s be honest: odds are, students aren’t going to be proportionately represented at your event. So let’s make sure we’re asking ourselves how we’re reconciling this, and making sure the viewpoints of the people not physically at the table are being incorporated.

  2. How many people of color are attending your events? Chapel Hill is a majority white municipality. But I’ve been to events that have made me wonder if it’s an exclusively white community. That is not okay. Roughly one in ten residents here is black. One in ten is Asian. Another one in ten identifies as something else. Is the same true of the attendees at your event?

  3. Are you holding your events at a time that working people can attend them? If your meetings occur primarily between 9am and 5pm, you’re locking out a sizeable portion of the working class population. And if they only occur in the evenings, you’re locking out others. Hold multiple sessions instead at varying times of day and days of the week.

  4. Are you interacting with people digitally? Having a website or a one-way Twitter/Facebook feed isn’t enough. Lots of people can’t make time for meetings at any time of day. Are you reaching them? Are they reaching you?

  5. Are you making assumptions about home ownership? Chapel Hill is about evenly split between homeowners and renters. Is the makeup of your group similar to this proportion? If it’s not, what are you assuming about the other side? Are the viewpoints and values of renters being weighted equally with the values of homeowners?

  6. Are people of one gender dominating the conversation at your events, or are the pre-selected speakers primarily of a single gender? Since I work in the tech industry, maybe I'm a little more sensitive to gender diversity since it's a big issue that we're still struggling with in a big way. But it's an issue locally, too. Even if you have diverse participants, you need to work to make sure that everyone feels welcome to contribute. Have a plan in advance for dealing with individuals who dominate the conversation to the point that others don’t feel welcome or aren’t able to have their views heard.

  7. Are the primary participants in your events your friends and neighbors? There’s nothing wrong with this when starting out with neighborhood organizing, or reaching out to your friends first for help in any cause. It's actually a great organizing strategy! But as your movement grows, it needs to broaden. There has been a lot of discussion in the past year about the use of the word NIMBY. Regardless of how you feel about that term, the most valuable way to combat it is to make sure it isn’t true.

  8. Are your meetings accessible by public transit and other alternative transportation? Some of us don’t drive. Some of us don’t have a choice in that matter, while others choose not to. Whatever the reason, if you’re not accommodating people who can’t or won’t drive, you’re not going to attract broad opinions.

  9. Are you providing child care at events? If your objection to this question is that no one in your group has young children, this fact in itself is worth reflecting upon.

  10. And one final question. Are you projecting perceived values upon the people not participating? Getting broad participation is hard. No one is claiming otherwise. But if you’re relying upon anecdotal evidence or vague memories of what things were like at a different point in your life as evidence, you need to try harder. What hard evidence can you bring to the table to back up your assumptions? If there’s not any, you need to dig further.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. It’s just a reminder. Diversity of community participation requires people of all genders, all ethnicities, all races, all sexual orientations, all ages, all incomes, all classes, all religions, and many, many other factors.

Chapel Hill is a diverse place. It’s one of the things I love most about it. Let’s make sure we’re sustaining diversity in our community by making sure that as we plan our future, we’re getting input from everybody, so everybody can continue to live here. And in some cases, so those groups we’ve marginalized, intentionally or not, can move back.





When UNC was holding meetings on Carolina North, we experimented with different meeting times.  We generally held two sessions, one during the day, at 1 or 3 p.m., and the other after 5, either 5:30 or 7:00.  It's been long enough ago that I don' thave the turnout numbers handy (I tracked the #s carefully), but without fail, the 7 pm. session was the least attended.  The afternoon meeting usually drew the most people with the 5:30 coming close.  Those meetigns were attracting  faculty but more were professionals not from campus who obviously had flexibility in their work hours.  Now when we have public information meetings, our go-to time is 5:30.  We found that catching people on their way home seems to work best.  Generally, these meetings are for particular audiences (like a neighborhood) so it wouldn't hold true universally but was a surprising finding for us. 


Thank you, Jason, for posting this.

1) For your average shift worker, it is not only time of meeting, it is also giving more than, say, two weeks notice, so that shift workers can arrange their schedules.

2) We need to think beyond archetypal events. Very often, the very people from whom we need to hear are the very people who are nervous of staged events. We need to find ways of engaging which are in the comfort zone of those we are engaging, not merely in our comfort zones. And sometimes, that comfort zone includes not having access to the internet or digital media.

3) Touchy one. But I'll go there. We are a community (Orange, Chapel Hill, Carrboro) where we tell ourselves the prevailing sentiment is progressive. But it is not the only sentiment. When we are politicking, I say bang the progressive drum with glee. But when we are engaging civic discussion, are we putting aside our politics? Are we being truly welcoming to all points of view?

4) Delicate one. And Linda, I do not mean to offend. But, in the nicest way possible way, your comment speaks to Jason's point about inadvertent exclusion.

First, your comment assumes all interested parties are able to attend civic meetings starting between 1.00pm and 7.00pm. I'm interested. Yet, like many shift workers, I work between 3.00pm and 11.00pm. And it is very often shift workers who want to talk about hot button issues like affordable rent, bad landlords, density, walkability, public transit and policing - not forgetting the interaction between UNC and local communities!

Secondly, and I am sure you meant no offense, but it is important to be aware. When we talk in assumptive terms about whom we expect at meetings, and we give the impression we only expect 9-5 white-collars, it sounds like we're saying that's all we want.


I don't disagree with you and am always looking for new ways to think about engagement.  I was just sharing the experience we had years ago that our assumptions about what times would attract the most attendance from a particular audience proved to be wrong and that we learned something from experimenting with the times.

Your comment about inadvertant exclusion is fair.  The tricky thing is, how do you decide who your audience is? 






Thank you, Linda. The simple, if somewhat facetious, answer to your question is: don't.

Don't assume what people are going to think. And don't assume who is going to think it.

If I'm trying to work out who I want at my next gig, I'm allowed to be picky.

If you are trying to gauge if a neighborhood is going to support a new development by UNC, then the obligation upon you to engage with everyone is much greater.

Jason, and before him Travis, have made a great start in this regard.

The approach, in my opinion, should be: grab a map, take a walk, and ask ourselves (maybe even knock on a door, and ask them), what do we have to do to get your opinion?

You in the apartment. You in the trailer park. You in the bar. You on shift. You who don't like cops. You who feel nervous around collars. And so on.

What we can not do, as Jason and Travis make clear, is sit at a table and wait for folks to come to us.

The Carrboro Board of Aldermen just held a public meeting about funding for a new Arts Center. They sent a 2-page mailer in advance to every household in Carrboro.

Subject to the above points about timing, advance notice, nervousness about speaking in public, etc., that represents another good start.

Inclusion isn't about hitting targets or nominal efforts. It's about including. It's tough. And it's often (from my experience) about ongoing, long-term communication.

Leaning on a UK political experience (wash my mouth), I helped to engineer the first-time success of a couple of party political candidates in a council ward previously an absolute slam-dunk for the opposing political party - along with building up some very useful feedback - by producing an attractive, fun, twice-yearly newsletter, which always included a survey, even if there was no big issue out there.

Folks are sometimes so used to not being asked, it takes them a while to get used to regularity.


Community Guidelines

By using this site, you agree to our community guidelines. Inappropriate or disruptive behavior will result in moderation or eviction.


Content license

By contributing to OrangePolitics, you agree to license your contributions under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons License

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.