Starting a diversity committee in cooperatives

From Cultivate.Coop

Working on diversity is a continual process of learning, evaluation and adjustment. There are no simple set of steps which you follow and then are finished with. These however are a few pieces of advice which have been found valuable and can be passed on to anyone in a Cooperative organization who wants to work on diversity issues in their co-op.

Be clear on whom you are serving

As you set your goals, plan events, write policies, or make other decision, you should occasionally think about which groups really benefit from each action. Are you helping international students? Are you helping people of color from the U.S.? The white majority? Women? Men? Queer members? Are there some groups you are ignoring?

Have a focused set of goals/purposes

There are many different possible goals which a “diversity committee” can have. Do you want to increase Recruitment/Retention for people of color? Do you want to make the houses more queer-friendly? Do you want to increase the number of cultural events in your organization? Do you want to educate your members about diversity? Do you want to address policies on prejudicial behavior in your houses? Translate written materials into multiple languages? Diversify the staff? It is recommend that you focus on a small number of goals at first (one or two) and making some progress with those before trying to expand what your committee does.

Build a regular calendar of events

To varying degrees, this will probably be true of your other committees as well, but you might think about creating a regular annual schedule or calendar of events so that you don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel. If you have a successful event or project, you might want to do it again next year with your new members so you build a regular program of activities so you don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel.

Make Connections with the Outside

Especially if you are just starting to create some kind of diversity committee it can be incredibly valuable to identify and make connections with groups or individuals in your area who are also working on diversity related issues. Get advice from NASCO (either from the organization itself or from one of the Caucuses). If your co-op is near a University setting, many schools have cultural/ethnic/gender/orientation/religion based organizations which might be a resource. Many schools also have an Office of Multicultural Affairs, which might also be a good place to go to for advice. Local political organizations. Organizations which your members are already involved in.

Democracy is a funny thing

Dealing with diversity issues in cooperatives often has certain challenges. One challenge is how do you get an organization run by majority-rule to address the needs of it’s minority group members? There are no easy answers here. But you might want to think about the various levels in your organization where decision-making takes place (the house, the board, various committees, conflict resolution) and try to gradually set up a structure where diversity issues are given the appropriate amount of consideration.

For example, at the house level, a Consensus-type process has an advantage because it allows small groups or an individual to protect themselves from imposition by the majority. But at higher levels, a consensus structure tends to be conservative and makes institutional changes difficult to bring about.

Safe Spaces

By their very nature, some diversity issues can make people defensive. It is suggested that at all times you should strive to be friendly, respectful and considerate of people’s feelings. And perhaps not every topic or issue is appropriate for every kind of forum. But *somewhere* in the organization there need to be spaces where concerned members can candidly discuss the problems which come up. This is something which the committee should strive for, at least among themselves. It is also essential that there be safe spaces where minority members (of whatever stripe) can be listened to and their concerns addressed without fear of intimidation.

Internal activism

Even among co-ops which see themselves as progressive, there may be a certain amount of inertia, or even resistance when it comes trying to promote positive changes in the organization. Don’t be surprised by it. Just understand it if it comes. Set reasonable but significant goals. Pace yourself. Don’t give up. Don’t burn yourself out.

Include Pleasant Activities

You definitely want to strike a good balance between “serious” activities which discuss problems and “fun” positive events which entertain and make people feel good. One major genre of “fun” event would be showing a movie or having a festival associated with a group represented in your co-op. An open mike or a poetry slam can also be fun.

See Also


This article originally adapted with permission from the North American Students of Cooperation.