Feature

In the racial and ethnic potpourri that is South Florida, diverse community leaders and local media representatives have joined together to address a hot-button issue: media under- and misrepresentation of people of color.

In a similar story of unity, Eastern European descendents in Cleveland's Slavic Village- Broadway neighborhood--who had met their community's rapidly changing racial demographics with apprehension--are working with their African-American neighbors to combat racial tensions.

Those tales of finding common ground were highlighted at the APA 2002 Annual Convention session "Valuing diversity: communities helping communities," which examined the strategies that Toward a More Perfect Union (TAMPU) in West Palm Beach and Slavic Village Development (SVD) in Cleveland used to improve community relations.

The Valuing Diversity Project--funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and sponsored by APA's Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest and Div. 27 (Society for Community Research and Action: Division of Community Psychology), and implemented by the Association for the Study and Development of Community (ASDC)--"was created to enhance the capacity of professional psychology to assist communities in addressing issues related to diversity," said Kien Lee, senior associate at ASDC.

Six months of commitment

ASDC's guidance was invaluable in helping TAMPU Program Director Barbara Cheives bring together a potentially fractious group of community leaders and media representatives for six monthly meetings. "The goal of the project was to have the media accurately and fairly portray people of color," said Cheives. "There was a perception, that people of color were misrepresented or underrepresented predominately by print media but the visual media as well."

Convincing some parties to participate wasn't easy. One media representative, who grudgingly agreed to participate, quipped, "At some point during this six months, I'm going to say that this is bull," Cheives said.

Finding community leaders was a challenge too. "Some people in different communities were willing to complain about the issue but [weren't] willing to devote six months to discussing it and doing something about it," added Cheives, who eventually enlisted participants from the African-American, Caribbean, Haitian, Asian, Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican communities. The media representatives were all white.

The group's sometimes tough discussions about cultural diversity and sensitivity have already paid off, reported Cheives. One news station recently hired its first Haitian reporter. Another network created a diversity committee. A news outlet that denigrated Haitian exiles in the past used more respectful language in a recent story. And a news director instructed reporters to interview Black and Latino experts when possible. But a final indicator of the project's success: The group plans to continue meeting, even though the Valuing Diversity Project ended in October.

Neighbors helping neighbors

ASDC's support has also helped SVD improve race relations in Cleveland's Slavic Village- Broadway neighborhood, said Kara Keating, lead community organizer. SVD created Broadway: Diversity in Progress (BDP), a neighborhood group that identifies positive examples of diverse relationships throughout the community and develops activities that will allow the larger community to share experiences.

After a fight between black and white youth in the neighborhood, for example, two BDP members met with ethnically diverse residents who lived on the street where the incident occurred. Together they created steps to restore peace to the block. They reached out to the mother of one of the African-American children who was victimized, and supported the family as productive members of the community. They also identified the attackers--who in this case were white children--and as a group decided to make a statement to the family that as neighbors, they would not tolerate racist behavior or violence.

Advice on what works

ASDC's Lee shared insights into what had been effective in helping communities value diversity:

  • A common important issue, whether or not it is directly related to diversity, is essential for bringing different groups together.

  • Different levels of leadership, from grassroots to institutional, need to be engaged.

  • Different groups need to be prepared to struggle for equal power.

  • A common language and understanding about what valuing diversity means is needed in order to help groups communicate their aspirations for inclusion and equality.

  • Intermediaries are required to help communities adopt national and local resources, to create and implement comprehensive strategies that are action-oriented, and to respond to local needs and contexts.

"Addressing the issue of diversity at the community level is not an easy thing to do. It is a subject that is often thought of as taboo," said Keating of her experiences with Slavic Village- Broadway. But "the strength, knowledge and courage displayed by community members [inspire] those of us privileged enough to work with and staff this project."

Further Reading

For more information on the Valuing Diversity Project, visit the APA Public Interest Directorate's Web site:www.apa.org/pi.