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Is there a danger in diversity, equity and inclusion practices? A conversation from the grassroots

Written by Tonga Victoria Fakalata

Grassroots America best defined are neighborhoods and communities across the great United States where concentrations of heritage and culture exist, thrive, and transform. Atop rich local history, these types of communities often carry a narrative that values diversity, equity, and inclusion in its purest form that pulls from Biblical scripture– love thy neighbor as thyself. 

A great example of this is captured in Dreams of A City, a documentary film directed by Michael Levin that spotlights East Palo Alto in its early days of becoming a multicultural metropolis. A historically black city, East Palo Alto grew in size and demography during the 1970s-1980s with Latino/a and Pacific Islander immigrant families moving in. The rapid growth in persons and cultures accommodated well with the local Black Power movement, which is evidently so in the fifty-three minute feature film. The film captures the culture and grassroots activism of each ethnic community in a way that has since immortalized East Palo Alto as a hub for diversity, equity and inclusion. 

According to the East Palo Alto Community Archive on the Nairobi Movement, the movement was the 'local manifestation of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Pan African Movements in the USA and on the African continent.' Prior to the increase of the Latino/a and Pacific Islander communities, local Black / African American leaders successfully established roots in the ideals of community, culture, and grassroots activism . As one member of the Community Archive says, 'our history is why East Palo Alto, and lifelong residents of our hood, have strong organizing abilities and a unique appreciation for cultural inclusion.' 

So, one can imagine the cognitive dissonance that one from a community like this might experience when corporate and government systems take a stab at enforcing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion standards and procedures. 

“There’s a danger to that.” Heleine Grewe, an East Palo Alto activist and entrepreneur explained during a sit-down conversation. “My experience within my own community is what I think is trying to get modeled in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion spaces and systems which is the challenge. Trying to enforce Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is different from diversity, equity and inclusion being the outcomes of a collective consent to the ideals of certain values and thought.” 

One example to further illustrate is to look at the machines, hallways and ceiling signs of the Ravenswood Family Health Center. A local healthcare facility on the backside of East Palo Alto, the operating system of Ravenswood Family Health Center functions in the English, Spanish and Tongan languages, why? Because of the local ideals of community, culture, and grassroots activism established by leaders of the Nairobi movement in the 1980’s. On these foundational ideals alone is how East Palo Alto became a respectable place for national leaders and organizers to meet, strategize, and be transformed. Civil Rights figures like Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party and Cesar Chavez of the Labor Union Movement were voices around our community tables, why? Because they too shared in the ideals of community, culture, and grassroots activism. 

“I think there is a societal effort on becoming more aware of what makes us different, and what we share in common, and I think that more people who come from communities like mine should be the ones shaping the field of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” Grewe concluded. 

This article series has spotlighted the active nuances around this big conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion. The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion phenomenon that business and governance are actively integrating into system workflows and procedures is necessary, and will hopefully inherit some longevity so that transformative change can happen. At the same time, the movement-building power that exists at the grassroots level models will always serve as a primary reference to yielding and sustaining diversity, equity and inclusion.

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