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The founding director of the Center for Social Solutions, Earl Lewis, also devoted his time to serving as president of the Organization of American Historians this past year. At the organization’s recent annual meeting, Lewis brought with him his own personal history, as well as a thorough knowledge of the nation’s past, to form a president’s address full of insight and wisdom about the history and future of diversity.
The speech began with a quote from a Kerner Commission report: “Our nation is moving toward two societies: one Black, one White, separate and unequal.”
But Lewis saw things differently.
“For a kid like myself, born in segregated Virginia, the authors of the report seemed to be telling history backward,” he proposed. “We weren’t moving toward two societies; one black and one white. That had been my reality since birth.”
This revelation led Lewis to note the importance of historians: those who “carefully and judiciously complicate the story by confronting the evidence before [them].”
Returning to a broader view of the past, Lewis acknowledged that the field of history encompasses much more than just race. “Of course, it would be reductionist to say racism was the only thing that mattered in the sixties. Racism’s gnawing presence lived as powerfully and ubiquitously as, say, the Cold War.”
And, inevitably, there were the oversights. “Few foresaw today’s questionings about the rapid automation of work,” Lewis recognized. “Robots were things of fiction—not ever-present helpers named Alexa or Siri.”
The Future of Work, one of the Center’s four initiatives, seeks to explore the possibilities and implications of the evolution of the workforce in a world dominated by technology. Lewis’ mention of the future of employment reminds us that it is important to acknowledge the imminent threats to human workers.
Lewis also recognized the historians of the past who uncovered and revealed truths that played a role in changing the course of society. “Thankfully, [preceding] generations of historians inserted themselves into the era’s public debates, sorting through the moments’ facile assumptions to shape a longer vision of where the country had come from and where it might still go.”
Shifting to the significance of present historical studies, Lewis remarked that “today, against a backdrop of mass shootings, hate-filled marches, and the attempt at normalizing of the morally repugnant, the opportunity and importance of history and the common good demand we plunge ahead and continue to grapple with society’s greatest challenges.”
To do so, however, requires us to address one main question: “How do we continue to turn our diversity into an asset?”
Lewis was quick to answer his own question. “Defining it is the first step. Valuing that diversity is next. And then we must leverage diversity for the benefit of all.”
But then came another, arguably more daunting question: “Where do we begin?” And again, Lewis did not hesitate to offer an answer. “Let’s return to school. Education has long had a place at the table as we assess the work of freedom, and is also the place where the work of diversity begins.”
“For too long,” Lewis recognized, “excellence and diversity were presented as competing and mutually exclusive ambitions.”
Diversity and inclusion, Lewis argued, are key factors in ensuring the success of the nation’s education system and each individual within it. They are also the focus of the Center’s Our Compelling Interests book series and initiative.
Lewis gave his listeners one final offering of hope and contemplation: “We can define diversity. We can leverage diversity. But we must still value it for it to make a difference. We must understand its importance.”