Diversity is essential to greatness
To gather energy for a new year, I read John Lewis’s 2017 book, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America. Civil rights icon Lewis is committed to democracy and human equality. For him, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act.” A more just society depends on continuous action by every generation. The work of democracy is never done. It is for all of us to do.
In describing our most recent national election, Lewis observes, “The intolerance of difference got even worse. It became a rallying cry in code words, ‘Make America Great Again,’ as though diversity had damaged, not uplifted, our civilization.”
I despair that this tagline validates and animates policy and behavior that encourage division, hate, greed and white supremacy.
Lewis reminds me that how we approach difference does not have to be defined by a political slogan. What we do and what we expect of our local institutions can keep alive an inclusive agenda. It is up to us!
I cherish Cleveland Heights because of its tradition of citizen activism and institutional practices that support diversity. While we may fall short of achieving a community where equality, respect and inclusion are fully realized, these are aspirations that motivate much of our civic, institutional and personal lives. We have embraced diversity, and, mostly, we have benefited from it. It makes this a special and vibrant and challenging and wonderful place to live and raise children.
Starting in the mid-1960s, local activists focused on transforming all-white Cleveland Heights into an integrated community. Cleveland Heights residents formed Heights Citizens for Human Rights to challenge a resistant real estate industry and increase African-American access to suburban living. It worked. Black families found ways to buy homes and were welcomed by openhearted activists.
Integration required institutions to change their practices to include a diverse community, not just the white majority. The new black residents played a major role in advocating for their interests. They came for a better life and pushed city government and the public schools to include them.
In 1974 African-American students at Heights High took action to make their school more responsive to the reality that they were part of the student body. The school staff, discipline and counseling practices and curriculum made them feel like second-class citizens. After the students followed the traditional channels to push for changes, including a Martin Luther King holiday, the black parent group, the Committee to Improve Community Relations, stepped in to help. Unsatisfactory negotiations with the CH-UH Board of Education led them to file a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, and they won.
The lack of minority teachers was a vital concern. It was both a fair-employment issue and an essential ingredient to an educational environment that valued people of all races. The 1975 consent decree set the goal that by 1980 at least 15 percent of the credentialed staff would be minority members. At the time they accounted for 5 percent. The district did not meet the goal, but a revised decree set a new goal of 20 percent by 1985, and that was achieved.
This early activism put the district on a path toward building a diverse and responsive educational team. This commitment to diversity has stuck. It is an essential part of hiring practices, both because it is fair and because it makes a more vibrant and interesting culture within our schools. Diversity is, as John Lewis reminds us, “uplifting.”
In 1974, the school district had 664 professional staff members. Today there are 549. While the number of employees has decreased, minority numbers have grown from 34 to 137. This year, 25 percent of teachers and administrators are minority members. The national average is 17 percent.
Our diverse workforce makes our schools better. We are tapping the full wealth of humanity—not just the thin slice of white privilege. Our school communities have the benefit of learning with and from people with distinct identities and realities, experiences and perspectives. They enrich learning and thinking. Without the constraint of a single-race staff, our students can find role models everywhere. Stereotypes are challenged. The content of a person’s character can be the basis for judgment.
Each year minority teachers retire. We need to continue to replace them and grow a diverse staff. This is one powerful way we can fight the national narrative of division.
Diversity is uplifting. It is up to us to create a more just community and society. We cannot let greatness mean diminishing our humanity and our democracy.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.