Diversity and the Komen-Planned Parenthood Debacle

An important lesson that no one is talking about but that we all need to learn.

There’s an important lesson to glean from the Komen Foundation-Planned Parenthood debacle—one that no one is reporting but that we all need to learn.

Writers continue to derive obvious PR lessons for nonprofits from this debacle: “don’t lie about why you are doing something” and “have a consistent story” are just a few. What they are not talking about is diversity.

Diversity is a much discussed issue in the field of social entrepreneurship—we talk about breaking down gender and race barriers or point out that too many leaders come from upper-class backgrounds. A more dangerous diversity issue is one that no one talks about because it is so taboo: ideological diversity.

In a country polarized by political and ideological partisanship, social change organizations have too often joined one side or the other, and in doing so, they’ve missed their opportunity to be transformational forces.

Recently, an education social entrepreneur asked me to help spearhead her organization's diversity efforts by interviewing some diversity trainers—these are people devoted entirely to helping organizations embrace diversity of all types, both internally and externally. In one interview, I explained to the leader of a top diversity organization that to accomplish the goal of education reform, we needed to convince conservative Republicans about the importance of our work. I asked him how his company would help us build a more ideologically diverse team and navigate partisan issues, bridging the ideology gap.

He seemed flustered by the question and snapped, “We would not train you to convince Republicans. We would train you to speak truth to power. We would train you to fight for what you believe in. Diversity training has nothing to do with selling out your principles.”

This was a leading diversity trainer, and his strategy for approaching diverse political ideologies was to fight them and win. He viewed working with diverse opinions as selling out.

American public policy life today is an ideological trench warfare that poses possibly the greatest threat to the nation’s well being. Instead of bridging that gap, the vast majority of social change leaders have settled into the comfortable role of righteous indignation: my views are good, theirs are evil, let’s fight.

Family planning, LGBT, and environment groups have given up their earlier strategies of working across ideologies to achieve their goal by aligning to the left. Faith-based groups—demonstrated by the Catholic Bishop’s announcements this week—are giving up their long-held ability to impact people of many different faiths and philosophies by lining up with the right.

The social sector is becoming as polarized as our political sector, and the losers are those we aim to serve.

There are strategies for crossing the ideological chasm and for translating the work of your cause to both sides while maintaining your integrity and the truth. In the early ‘90s, as head of adolescent health in Massachusetts, I was tasked with supporting and developing school-based health clinics and introducing a condom availability campaign to high schools. I learned the power of engagement across ideologies from a Republican governor and our head of Public Health, who was a former Catholic priest. Both of them traveled from town hall to town hall to explain to concerned parents that our school-based health centers were not abortion clinics and that condom availability did not mean encouraging teenage sexual activity.

Both of these initiatives eventually scaled throughout the state, leading the nation. Why? Because we listened to our opposition and respected their perspective as we explained ours. We could have accomplished our goal through political mandate, but by respectfully engaging all parties in dialogue, we created sustainable change around very controversial issues.

Understanding is not agreement. Gaining understanding, tapping into empathy, and seeing and respecting opposing positions are critical to effective leadership. As social change goes global, the degree to which leaders respect and gain respect from individuals and groups with diverse ideologies will be the fundamental measure of their ability to create sustainable change.

Until social change leaders really understand the depth of ideological diversity and the hold it has on our culture, our causes will rise and fall on the political wins or losses of those with whom we agree.

Read more stories by Rich Tafel.

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  • Andy Kerr's avatar

    BY Andy Kerr

    ON February 14, 2012 01:15 PM

    I think there are very good points here.  I would always choose collaboration and compromise over trench warfare; however, I think an understanding of how we got here is really important.  You write, “Family planning, LGBT, and environment groups have given up their earlier strategies of working across ideologies to achieve their goal by aligning to the left.”  The reality is this change in strategy was done out of pure survival.  A close look at the recent history of the Republican party over the past 40 years would clearly show a shift to the right, especially on social issues, as religious conservatives have galvanized their political power in that party and boxed their leaders into an inflexible ideology (see our current GOP primary candidates).  It also doesn’t help, with concern for the environment, to have people on the other side ignoring science and spreading misinformation.  You can demonstrate a similar shift in the Catholic church since Vatican II as leaders have shifted their focus from social justice issues to extreme conservatism with a greater concern and inflexibility over divisive issues (see womens’ rights, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, etc.).  To paint both sides of the political spectrum in equal terms is an oversimplification of the issue.  With that said, moderates and liberals must continue to be willing to meet conservatives half-way, AND keep finding individuals on the other side willing to provide the same respect.

  • Douglas Stinson's avatar

    BY Douglas Stinson

    ON February 14, 2012 09:21 PM

    I would go beyond what Andy Kerr said. The problem is not that people have drifted to the extremes; those “extremes"may be their legitimate position on an issue. In my opinion the problem is that people promoting those positions are creating their own “fantasy” worlds where “facts” are invented to support their position. Bruce Bartlett explained this very well to Bill Moyers (http://billmoyers.com/segment/bruce-bartlett-on-where-the-right-went-wrong/). In this environment people dismiss each other even when an objective observer would say they agree. Any suggestions on how to bridge THAT barrier would be most welcome!

  • BY Richard Tafel, Public Squared

    ON February 26, 2012 08:23 PM

    Good points by Douglas and Andy. I’d just caution thinking they our side has facts and their side doesn’t. We all live in narratives, fantasys of our own creation to some extent. The worldview of 50% of the country is worth looking at not just writing off as baseless.
    Does diversity mean inclusion of ideology? I think so. If yes, we need to get beyond preconceived notions that perpetuate polarization.

  • Douglas Stinson's avatar

    BY Douglas Stinson

    ON February 27, 2012 07:28 PM

    Rich, I agree that we seldom deal with absolute truth but instead create narratives that put the facts into a story that makes sense to us. For this reason eye-witness testimony is unreliable.  But let’s not get too post-modern here. To pick just one recent simplistic example, whether or not Barack Obama is a US citizen does not depend on your “worldview”. My concern is not with people with different worldviews weaving different narratives from the same facts, it is with people fabricating compelling narratives from lies.

  • Diana Wong's avatar

    BY Diana Wong

    ON February 27, 2012 08:10 PM

    Brilliantly put Rich! Thank you for being a voice of clarity in the wilderness of political chaos in our current times.  If more leaders learn to cross multiple boundaries, we could create common grounds for a shared future.  My concern is less with those who use voice but more concern over the silence of apathy.

  • joybarnitz's avatar

    BY joybarnitz

    ON February 28, 2012 07:03 AM

    Interesting points.  When I read the comments along with Rich’s original piece I find myself wondering how the ‘common ground’ has become so uncommon.  It seems as if it’s become nearly impossible to focus on the ‘destination’ even when it’s possible to state simply (e.g. healthy people who are productive employees, educated people who are responsible and engaged citizens) without immediately arguing about the path to the destination. If we all want everyone on the same path, it will wear down quickly and form a trench. Treading lightly to the destination opens up more innovation, ownership and creativity and thus is more engaging. At least for me

  • BY Audrey Seymour, Clear Change Group

    ON February 28, 2012 02:08 PM

    Great points here!  And I agree with Douglas’s point about the possibility of legitimate extreme differences of opinion.  The problem comes only with pathologizing the difference, not the difference itself.  Empathy, valuing learning why someone believes what they do, being curious about other perspectives to enrich common knowledge are all needed.

  • Pepper's avatar

    BY Pepper

    ON April 3, 2013 07:23 AM

    How do quantify the dangerousness of racial and gender diversity compared to ideological diversity?  Have you, sir, been discriminated against based on race or gender?  I find your claim baseless and without merit.

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