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From Compliance to Compassion: A Diversity Journey (Part 1)

Recently I have been spending time in the twitterverse engaging with other education professionals. I encountered some incredible knowledge dropped by Julia E. Torres (@juliaerin80) who shared an article on black empowerment in Denver schools. You should click the link here for the article and here for the twitter engagement.

No. I am serious. Go read those things. They will put this all into context.

I'm not kidding. Before you go any further, I strongly recommend you read that article.

Julia started the thread with a quote out that is mind blowing and a critical piece of truth. Honestly, if you don’t get anything else out of my writing, you’ll hear this:

“Equity has been done mostly for compliance. We don’t want to do this for compliance, we want to do this for sustainability. We don’t want to do this over again. This is not an experiment, this is our kids.”

Sit with that for a moment. Do we as white folx (or with our other privileged identities) truly care about equity and inclusion because of our notions to comply with the social order, or are we looking for change around equity issues that are sustainable and build a better world for OTHERS? Will we only deal with issues of equity until we fill our compliance cup, or will we push further to engage toward sustainable change?

As I sit with my own journey, I reflect back and recognize this internal battle between compliance and compassion in my own walk. When I think back to my youth, I was originally motivated by my own ego and self. Here is my story:

As a first year student at UC Santa Barbara, the Resident Director in my building, Jamie DeJesus (I use names because I do not want these amazing professionals who impacted my life to be erased) told me at one point;“Tyler, you have potential to be a great leader, but if you don’t focus on diversity issues you won’t ever achieve your full potential.” It was 1990, folx; we hadn’t yet switched brands to multiculturalism, social justice, inclusion, or equity.

As I shared in a recent post (located here), it was 28 years ago I was introduced to the concept of building capacity to lead "effectively within, across, and about difference" (Jamie Washington) I wish I could say that stuck with me and I made changes. Alas the hubris of an 18 year old boy/man got in the way and I completely ignored Jamie's advice. I had never needed to think about or consider diversity in my life growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, why would diversity impact me in 1990?

That first year in college, I ran for president of my building and was elected as co-president (Calvin Gladen, where are you at?). I was hired on as a Desk Attendant to help me pay for school. I was doing well for a first year leader!

In addition, I had my first friend ever come out to me as gay, which was a tremendous surprise. I felt "enlightened" having a gay friend. Again, I was complying with the social order at the time.

Towards the end of my first year, I applied for a Resident Assistant (RA) position. I thought given my background and leadership experience, I was a shoo in. President of my building? Check. Front desk staff? Check. Enlightened? Check. I had everything. Even though the maintenance staff member told me I wouldn't be hired (and who which I completely dismissed) I was excited and fully expected the RA position!

However, my privileged 19 year old world came crashing down when I was rejected as an RA candidate. I told myself at the time it was because of a major alcohol violation that occurred my first year.

I quickly shook off the rejection and immediately ran for President of all the dorms on campus at UCSB. I was more of the outsider candidate, but still won the election. Whew. I was able to tell myself I was back on track as a leader!

I then re-applied for the RA position. Being a saavy leader, I knew going in to have a file review before interviewing was going to be helpful. My world was about to be rocked. You see, in speaking with the Assistant Director, he shared notes from the RA process the year prior. Basically it came down to me saying things in our group process that others in the group thought were racist, sexist, and homophobic.

I was stunned. How could I, as an "enlightened" leader, be perceived as those things. I was a good person. I knew I wasn't those things. But I sat stunned chewing on that feedback questioning myself.

"Ok" I told myself, "sure that played a factor, but the major party I threw certainly had to play a factor." I asked the Assistant Director how much the alcohol violation played a part in the decision. The AD said "I don't see anything in your file about an alcohol violation" How is that for privilege?

So thus began my journey towards inclusion. If I am honest, I know my initial motives were to be a better RA candidate and get a job. I didn’t REALLY stop to think about the negative impact of my actions as a 19 year old impacted others. I merely thought “wow! I better do this because it will benefit ME!”

I asked the maintenance worker who told me I wasn't going to get the RA job what my chances were. He told me he thought I would get it this year. He was right. I was offered an RA position.

However, on this journey, my motives were STILL about benefiting myself. Jamie's words rang in my ear; AHHHHHH - this is what Jamie meant. Not engaging across differences was going to limit my potential.

And that’s the beginning of my journey. How about you? How did your journey begin?

For a sneak peek at part 2, click here.

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