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America's ethnic diversity seen as powerful by panel

STANFORD -- America's ethnic diversity can be both a negative and positive force for the nation, a panel of speakers from different ethnic backgrounds said at Stanford on Monday, Sept. 30.

It can be negative if groups turn against each other and lose concern for the whole.

To make it a positive force, the nation needs to create "a level playing field" that begins with improving the schools of poor minority children, most said.

But even if city public schools aren't improved, poor ethnic minorities need to push their children to learn more of what is offered in their lower-quality schools, said Shelby Steele, the author of the controversial bestseller, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America.

Each speaker on the panel offered the 1,200 members of the audience one suggestion for how they, as individuals, could employ the power of diversity more positively in their communities.

  • Read about other cultures in a "systematic, serious way," suggested Steele, a professor of English at San Jose State University. People who expand themselves by reading about the "systems of thoughts" in cultures other than their own do not approach people of a different background with condescension, Steele said.
  • "Entertain the notion that civilization as we know it -- Western civilization -- has had many answers but not all of them," suggested W. Richard West Jr., founding director of the Smithsonian Institution's new National Museum of the American Indian.

American Indians expect to be part of the American society but they also wish to have their cultural uniqueness appreciated as a resource for others to learn from, West said. "We want to come out of the museum of history where we are set up next to the dinosaurs and into the museum of the American Indian."

  • Focus your efforts on improving kindergarten through 12th grade schools in minority communities, suggested Vilma Martinez, former general counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and currently a partner in the Los Angeles firm of Munger, Tolles and Olson.

Without equal schools, there is not equal opportunity for minority children to come to institutions like Stanford, she said. White Americans, older as a group than Americans from other ethnic groups, show more interest in issues facing older Americans and not enough in schools for the young, Martinez said.

  • Tutor and mentor a child other than your own outside of school, suggested Jane G. Pisano, dean of the school of public administration at the University of Southern California and former president of the 2000 Partnership, which has come up with a strategic plan for Los Angeles. She reminded the audience that 91 percent of a child's time between birth and high school graduation is spent outside the classroom.
  • Lobby all types of educational institutions for curricula that reflect the "philosophies, cosmologies and experiences of the many groups in America, including women," said Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. Human diversity is as "natural" as it is for other animals and plants, but school curricula have tended to downplay it, McIntosh said.
  • In a similar vein, Ronald Takaki, chairman of the ethnic studies department at the University of California-Berkeley, and Clayborne Carson, professor of history at Stanford and editor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, specifically urged Stanford alumni to make sure the university continues to expand on a multicultural curriculum.

Takaki said Stanford needs an American cultures course requirement similar to that at Berkeley, where all students must study the history of American ethnic groups, including European Americans, in a comparative way.

"Diversity can be the basis of our American commonality. It is a different diversity than in the Soviet Union," Takaki said.

As Stanford faces budget cuts, Carson said it is especially important for alumni to let administrators and faculty know they do not consider a multicultural curriculum "one of the frills."

  • Tackle examples of racism and discrimination as you see them in your workplace and other institutions where you are active, suggested William P. Madar, president of Nordson Corp, a Cleveland-based manufacturer of industrial equipment and software.

A trustee of the Cleveland Education Fund, Madar also agreed with Martinez that "rebuilding and reinventing" the system of public education in cities where minorities are educated should be the top priority for the nation.

Belva Davis, an urban affairs specialist for KRON-TV in San Francisco, moderated the discussion.



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