Different Experiences, Shared and Stronger Community

Consider the story of a teacher I recently heard about:

Young and enthusiastic, she faced a classroom in Los Angeles with the task of teaching them about negative numbers. She struggled. And they couldn’t grasp it, no matter how many times she would try to explain the concept.

A short time later she returned home to her native Minneapolis, teaching another class of young children about the concept of negative numbers. They almost immediately got it.

Was one set of children smarter than the other?

No, of course not.

The answer, it struck her, was one of experience. The students in Minneapolis often, of course, dealt with frigid cold temperatures, which routinely plunged below zero. Understanding negative numbers, with that frame of reference and experience, came naturally. The students in LA never experienced cold like that. The concept, as a result, was much more difficult.

Our experiences frame what we understand about ourselves and the world around us.

That was the story relayed to me and a group of Lexington business leaders recently by the young teacher’s father, former Minneapolis MayorR.T. Rybak, who now heads the Minneapolis Foundation, one of the oldest community foundations in the country. I was in Minneapolis/St. Paul recently for the annual Commerce Lexington Leadership visit, an opportunity to look at both the successes and challenges confronting sister cities across the country.

Rybak’s point was about the need to encourage and embrace a diverse workforce, but to understand that with that embrace, we need to develop systems and networks of support for people, who join our communities from all walks of life. And, he argues, in doing that we must start by a willingness to walk a mile in each other’s shoes. When you understand the world around you from someone else’s experience, you begin to understand why that person feels or thinks the way he or she does. And you begin to understand how lived experiences shape perceptions and attitudes.

That difference can be a barrier to understanding. But it can also be enriching as we all bring different capacities and abilities with us. Different experiences – different ways of viewing life whether framed by culture, race, ethnicity, identity, gender or perspective – enrich us and, by extension, our communities and our country.

And the need, as Rybak and others pointed out, for such diversity grows more critical each day. Minneapolis, for example, is home to nearly 20 Fortune 500 companies, more than any other community per capita in the country. But the city faces a worker shortage that will reach 300,000 by 2024.

Diversity, and respect for difference, is a moral imperative. It’s also an economic one.

It’s a point made and reinforced time and again by speakers and presenters during our time in Minneapolis. Our state, to be sure on a different scale, faces many of the same issues. In Louisville and Lexington, and communities throughout our Commonwealth, high-skilled, high-wage jobs often go unfilled. The dynamic is occurring for a variety of reasons, but the impact is the same. Diversity is, and will be, an increasingly critical part of the equation that determines whether we are successful.

That’s true for Lexington. It’s true for Kentucky. And, without question, it is true for our campus. The world our students will live and compete in faces real divisions. Our politics often seem to speak more to what polarizes, rather than unites us.

But the fact is that our world continues to grow more economically interdependent and connected. Our economy is a global one. That’s not going to change.

A diverse and inclusive campus, where everyone feels a sense of belonging, prepares our students for that reality. And, as a practical matter, it informs and expands our capacity for teaching, research and service.

I’m grateful to live in a place and on a campus that understands that we must all work together to create a community where everyone feels a sense of belonging. We are not there yet. Our work will never be complete. But we are unwavering in our commitment to making that journey together, framed by different experiences and perspectives, but united in our resolve to be a community.