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Assessing the value of diversity

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This is the final article in a series that examines racial diversity in Yellow Springs, including its history, its current decline, and possible causes and solutions.

For Jewell Graham, the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s were exhilarating times to live in the village. Having come to Yellow Springs as a young African-American woman with her new husband, Paul, who after graduating from Antioch had been offered a job at Vernay Laboratories, Graham was impressed with the quality of relationships between blacks and whites. Many businesses were integrated in a way unusual for the time, and a passion for the civil rights movement further brought people together. There was considerable socializing between blacks and whites in her world, as well as a sense of shared purpose.

“To me, what was exciting was that I felt we were on the cutting edge of relationships between people of different races and backgrounds,” said Graham, who went on to establish the social work department at Antioch College. “It felt like we were a demonstration of how things could be.”

Having been raised in Springfield, which was still largely segregated, Graham was impressed with the vital role that blacks played in village life. Families like the Lawsons and Bennings were longtime leaders in the community, and blacks and whites had worked together to integrate the Little Art Theatre in the late 1940s. The major workplaces — Vernay, Yellow Springs Instruments, and Antioch Bookplate, as well as the college — employed African Americans in professional positions, and the town had a lively black middle class. When the civil rights movement heated up in the late 1950s, many villagers came together to help achieve equal rights for all races.

“People had a common enterprise,” she said.

Hardy Trolander, one of the founders of YSI, also remembers those years as heady ones. He and his wife, Gene, were deeply involved in the civil rights movement, and he and Paul Graham together brought a suit to the Ohio Supreme Court that sought equal treatment for blacks at Gegner’s, a Yellow Springs barbershop. (The court dropped the suit after the shop closed in the early 1960s.) Socializing between blacks and whites was common, Trolander said, at least partly because people tended to socialize with those with whom they worked, and most work places were integrated. As well as the civil rights movement, Trolander remembers blacks and whites working together to create a new swimming pool at Gaunt Park.

But more than 30 years later, Jewell Graham sees fewer blacks in town and misses the vital friendships between the races that she once experienced. She wonders if the change reflects national trends. With the success of the civil rights movement, blacks can now live anywhere they want, so the village is no longer the oasis that it once was for professional blacks. And perhaps the village mirrors what appears to be a national trend of blacks and whites being more isolated from each other.

For whatever reason, things have changed in Yellow Springs.

“This town is still interesting, but to me it’s not as interesting as it once was, regarding the vitality of relationships,” she said. “The key word is ‘uniqueness.’ I believe we’ve lost the uniqueness in that arena.”

Effects of diversity

This Yellow Springs News series has examined several possible factors that may have contributed to the diminishing -African-American population in Yellow Springs, including a lack of jobs and high housing costs. There are multiple perspectives regarding why, exactly, the local population of blacks has declined, but there is no arguing with the fact that there has been a decline, from about 27 percent of the population in 1970 to about 15 percent in 2000, with a greater drop anticipated by some in this year’s census.

While villagers have long been proud of local racial and cultural diversity, they less often define exactly how this quality enhances the village. What does diversity add to Yellow Springs? Perhaps more relevantly, what does the village lose when it loses racial diversity?

Living in a small town that is racially diverse “makes us bigger, broader and better,” according to Faith Patterson, one of the founders of the African American Cross-Cultural Works, or AACW.

Living closely with those of different races and culture helps us to discover the commonalities of being human, and that understanding makes us stronger, Patterson believes. She also believes that children who grow up in a diverse community are better prepared for adulthood in the wider world.

“We’re doing our young people a serious injustice to not offer the opportunity to relate to those who are different than ourselves,” she said.

A community rich in racial diversity helps to combat the corrosive effects of racism and prejudice, according to Village Council President Judith Hempfling.

“Part of what has been compelling and powerful about Yellow Springs has been the strength of the African-American community,” she wrote in a recent e-mail. “We need relationships and friendships across racial lines. We need to know one another, learn from one another and support one another and our children need the same. We need to work to remove racism from our daily lives and our institutions…If Yellow Springs does nothing to address the shrinking of the African-American community, we will all be diminished.”

The legacy of racial diversity in Yellow Springs was one quality that drew Council member Lori Askeland and her husband to the village, she wrote in an e-mail. An English professor at Wittenberg University, she sees that students in more homogenous classes seem to write, and perhaps to think, with less clarity, she said.

“They are not having to write for multiple audiences, and in so doing, having to rub up against ideas and perspectives that make them rethink their whole way of being, or at the very least articulate their thoughts more clearly,” she wrote.

There’s no question about the positive effects of racial and cultural diversity to students in his classes at Antioch University McGregor, according to Joe Cronin, associate dean of undergraduate studies at the school, where 20 percent of the student body is African American.

“Your ideas are challenged by those who think differently,” he said in a recent interview. “This is what you want in a classroom.”

Research on the effects of racial diversity in the workplace and in the community has produced a variety of conclusions. A considerable number of studies (Hoffman and Maier, 1961; Nemeth, 1995; Phillips, Mannix, Neal, 2004) indicate the benefits of diversity, including that a racially diverse workplace offers “increased group creativity, information sharing, flexibility and thoughtfulness,” according to a summary of diversity studies that concluded that “diverse groups deliberated longer and considered a wider range of information” in making decisions.

A 2006 thesis titled “On Racial Diversity and Group Decision Making” by Samuel Sommers of Tufts University concluded that, “In many circumstances, racially diverse groups may be more thorough and competent than homogeneous ones” because these groups spend more time deliberating, use their time productively and hold more comprehensive discussions, with “improved performance from white as well as black” workers.

But there can also be a downside to racial diversity, as concluded in 2007 by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in the largest study so far of the effects of racial and cultural diversity on civic life. After he compiled information from 30,000 Americans who lived in both urban and rural settings, he found that the short-term effects of increased diversity is heightened distrust that appears to undermine civic life, with more diverse communities reporting less voting, less volunteerism and less common work on community projects. In the most diverse communities studied, neighbors trusted each other about half as much as they do in more homogeneous settings, the study concluded.

Because the study included not just whites and African Americans but also Hispanics and Asians, its relevance to Yellow Springs seems limited, because those groups face not just racial differences but also language and cultural ones. Still, the study emphasizes that diversity comes with challenges. The key, according to Putnam in a New York Times 2007 article, is for communities to invest in initiatives that promote “meaningful interaction across ethnic lines.”

Building bridges

One approach for promoting meaningful interaction between races has taken place in Buffalo, N.Y., where civic leaders launched a program called Mosaic Partnerships that aimed to build new relationships.

Introduced by Mayor William Johnson in 2001, the program has been successful in forging links between leaders of the African-American and white communities, according to Dash Douglas in the article, “Turning Diversity into an Asset: How Mosaic Partnerships Helps Communities Achieve their Potential.”

The program aims to increase the number of “weak tie” relationships between those of different racial backgrounds, the article states. As opposed to the “strong tie” relationships between family members and close friends, “weak tie” relationships arise from casual positive social interactions, according to social scientists, who identify “weak ties” as being “the key mechanism for mobilizing resources, ideas and information,” in a community, as well as “essential to the creative environment.” Basically, the more opportunities for positive social interaction between racial groups, the better.

The Mosaic project started from the simple premise that cohesion is best pursued one relationship at a time. In its first year, the program invited 30 leaders from the African-American and white communities to divide into 15 mixed-race pairs, who were asked to have 16 half-hour meetings over a year. Participants were simply asked to get to know each other, and the pairs also met periodically in small groups to share experiences. Each year new participants were added.

The program, which has since been replicated in Milwaukee and Greensboro, N.C., is considered a success, according to Douglas, who wrote that Mosaic Partnerships facilitated new friendships and networking that has sparked a variety of new projects that enhanced civic life.

Stay welcoming

Fewer blacks in the village can precipitate an even greater decline in the African-American population, according to Village Council member John Booth, because blacks visiting town see few familiar faces and feel less likely to want to live here.

“If it’s not as diverse, it feels less welcoming,” Booth said, recalling visiting Yellow Springs as a African-American boy growing up in the region. “When I came to Yellow Springs I felt welcome, and in other small towns I did not.”

Booth has a keen interest in the reason that African-American villagers seem to be leaving town, and he’s conducted informal interviews to find out why. Some cite the lack of jobs in the village, and others cite high housing costs. To address that issue, Booth would like to see more density allowed in the village, including more inexpensive, well-maintained rental -properties.

During the recent visioning effort, some local African Americans said that village culture falls short in offering leisure-time activities favored by blacks, according to Booth. For instance, more blues and jazz musical offerings, such as the annual AACW Blues Fest, would both attract African Americans from out of town and help local blacks feel at home, he said.

Some local African Americans feel distrustful of local government, he said, but he believes there is a role for Village Council to play in increasing and enhancing diversity.

“Council members need to keep our eyes and ears open, to look for more opportunities to be more welcoming,” he said. “We need to listen.”

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