When I was about nine or 10 years old, my parents took us on a wonderful train trip from Chicago down to the family farm in Union Springs, Alabama. When we got to the train station in Montgomery, we were thirsty. Problem was, the water fountains were segregated. My mother, being the modern woman of the 1950s that she was, wouldn’t let us drink out of the colored water fountain. “Wait till we get to my grandmother’s house,” she whispered to my little brother and me. I did just as I was told, and stood quietly obedient and thirsty. My little brother, however, was having none of it. He threw himself to the floor in the middle of the train station and started screaming: “I want some colored water! I want some colored water!” It was not until we got him to stop crying that we discovered that he thought colored water would come out of that fountain like a rainbow, blue and green and yellow and red, and he HAD to have some!
We can, in this time and place, laugh at that story, because the illogic of racial segregation seems to us ridiculous and laughable. The change in attitudes, which changed policy that changed the law that in turn changed attitudes created the reality, we enjoy today. And so it is a tribute to my little brother, who is now deceased, that we speak today about colored water.
The conversation about diversity transcends race, and reaches to the ends of our societal architecture. The appeal of colored water is its diversity. The appeal of diversity is its unlimited potential to tap human capacity. Change is a constant of the human experience, but nowhere is it more profound than in the change of attitudes about diversity, or, more precisely the change of expectations about station, status and inherited roles. We have moved from a rigid social structure to one that is more fluid, more encompassing, and more complex. We are still in a period of transition, moving toward a new set of societal expectations and structures. The driving force for this transition, I believe, is the global pursuit of human rights and the worldwide liberation of the human spirit. The promise of this transition is our world’s ability to tap the full range and compliment of human talent and capacity, to create in fact the meritocracy about which philosophers have waxed eloquent for centuries, of giving all people human rights, human dignity and respect. Whether or not we grasp the brass ring of universal rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” will depend on each and every one of us and the decisions we make in our everyday lives.
Our efforts will define colored water. Where we take the opportunity with which we are now presented remains to be seen, but know this: each and every person will help to chart the course of our future direction. We will have the rainbow and its pot of gold and give humanity new strength, new energy, new creativity, and capacity when we free the human spirit from social conventions that deprive the whole community of capacity. In the end, how we define our community, the direction in which it will move, whether diversity is seen as presenting an opportunity or a threat depends on attitudes, and those are created one person at a time, one conversation at a time, one action at a time.
Diversity is not a zero sum game, and it does not take dignity from one person to give it to another. Removing the barriers that excluded some based on their physical form will help stir the competitive pot, and open up civil society to the contributions of people too long marginalized by color or gender or some other aspect of station, or status, or physicality. That is why the conversation about diversity must not be seen strictly through the lens of altruism, or of doing a nice favor for someone else, or worst still, as something begrudgingly done to comply with the law. We have to demonstrate, with facts and figures, examples and studies, that by broadening the pool from which we draw talent, we expand and enlarge talent, without depriving anyone of access to the pool.
My late mother used to say, “It doesn’t matter if you came to this country on the Mayflower, or a slave ship, through Ellis Island or the Rio Grande, and we are all in the same boat now.” In a time when we have both the capacity to end poverty in the world or destroy the planet, charting the direction that boat will take falls to each of us, one person, one conversation, one contribution at a time. It will emerge out of a climate of opinion that each and every interaction can shape. It is up to us to make it a climate we will be proud to have define us as Americans.
The above is an edited excerpt of the keynote speech delivered by Carol Moseley Braun, former U.S. senator, former ambassador to New Zealand, CEO of Ambassador Organics, at The College at Brockport–State University of New York’s Seventh Annual Cultural Diversity Conference, March 1, 2007.