Sunday, August 22, 2010

Diversity Sensitivity Training

Earlier this summer, a friend of mine who’s heavily involved in political activism was bemoaning the fact that there was a discouraging turnout at a local rally, even from among known supporters. He couldn’t think of why that happened and blamed it on a growing indifference about our country’s future.

I asked if he’d considered another explanation. Perhaps the real problem was the type of event. He thought a rally would be successful because he liked rallies. But local rallies always seemed to me to be organized and attended primarily by middle class and working class whites. In an area with a lot of upper-middle class whites and middle class and working class Hispanics, a rally (or that particular type of rally) might be unable to drum up enough interest. What was needed was someone to figure out what type of events would attract these other subpopulations.

His response? Well, people should be interested enough in the purpose to attend anyway.

Apparently, he couldn’t separate the message from the medium. But the truth is, if the latter doesn’t work, it has to be changed. Otherwise efforts to get out the message are doomed to fail.

That conversation reminded me of a sermon I’d heard awhile back. The preacher talked about his seminary class going door-to-door ministering to people. In the poorer neighborhoods, people answered the door and were eager to talk to them. In the richer neighborhoods, no one answered the door. From this, he reached a conclusion about the rich’s unwillingness to hear the gospel.

At the time, I had just finished some research on differences in behavior across social strata. I wanted to tell him that the “rich” value their time differently than the “poor,” so they are less likely to welcome solicitors. In addition, the “poor” answer their doors because they tend to value neighborhood friendships, while the “rich” have reason to suspect a stranger as a potential burglar. And to top it off: The “rich” were probably away at work or other activities, while the poorer neighborhood likely contained housewives who can’t afford to get out much and the unemployed. In other words, going door-to-door wouldn’t be the best way to reach the unsaved “rich.”

Unfortunately, this preacher hadn’t considered alternatives that would capture their attention. He preferred to stick with his usual MO. Similarly, my friend insisted that others should put the message before their personal preferences, while he refused to do the same. That’s like an American missionary in another country refusing to preach in anything other than English. When he doesn’t get any converts, he has no one to blame but himself. No reason to give the target audience a brush off.