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"The Occasion" -- Reflections on Diversity and Inclusion

January 22, 2013

"The Occasion," a speech given by Joyce Moore Turner, Co-Chair of  Riderwood Retirement Community's  Diversity and Inclusion  Committee, at January 17, 2013 Celebrations of the New Year in Riderwood Chapel in Silver Spring, MD:               
We have called you to our beautiful chapel for this celebration because we need to pause and consider why diversity and inclusion are values to be cherished.  We seek to join in thanks for our journey toward a more inclusive community and society.
Our generation has experienced bad times and good times.  We have known wars, genocide, economic depression, sickness, loss, hate and exclusion.  If we focus on exclusion we find that it is related to other factors which determine the quality of life.  Exclusivity begets unfavorable living conditions, low productivity, inequality, injustice, dehumanization.  It not only creates misery for many citizens, it compromises our leadership position in the world.  Fortunately, we have also known peace, prosperity, health, love, and inclusion, and learned that respect is the key to establishing positive relationships.
As survivors we can claim some credit for engaging in various movements that sought a change, from patterns of exclusion established by our founding fathers - to practices of inclusion more appropriate for a modern, diverse community and nation.  We have struggled against discrimination and segregation of Native Americans, African Americans, Japanese Americans; immigrants from countries such as China, Ireland, and Mexico; Catholics, Jews, women, the disabled, and the elderly.  Our generation realized that we could only experience freedom if we assaulted the barriers that had created an American tribalism. 
Those struggles against discrimination based on ethnic background, race, religion, gender, disability, and age were led largely by our religious leaders.  They helped guide us, often in interfaith endeavors, to transform our society and release the potential that was being suppressed.  Despite the continuous displays of hate across our nation, this seemed the time to initiate an occasion to celebrate how far our generation has come, not only in creating a diverse population, but in developing ways to become an inclusive society.
Riderwood represents an excellent place to test our progress.  It has proven to be a unique community where senior citizens of various backgrounds and interests live together, are supported by a diverse staff, make new friends, and share responsibility for operating hundreds of clubs.  We attend stimulating intellectual programs, sing, dance, play cards, debate issues, worship, and tell our stories.
I too, have a story to share about an encounter I had at Stony Brook University last October.  As I left this campus I was depressed by the images of violence on my television and the appeals from relief organizations in my mailbox.  The world seemed to be torn asunder.  My spirits improved as the lectures at the university progressed, and finally we got to the highlight - a lecture on "Reinventing Diplomacy through Science and Technology" by a State Department adviser.  I entered the auditorium early and was sitting alone when I was approached by a beautiful young woman who addressed me and sat close-by to converse.  I did not have a clue who she was; I was thrown off by my stereotype of what I thought a speaker with the credentials and responsibilities described in the program should look like.  The person I assumed was a student was the speaker.
Her presentation began with a visual of the coral reefs off Florida and a discussion about their endangerment.  She pointed out that the fish and other creatures of the sea ignore boundaries established by nations. The State Department now relies on our scientists to establish relationships with scientists in other nations to address problems outside the usual diplomatic arena.  Scientists consult across nations despite disagreements that bind diplomats.  We learned that the speaker grew up on a tiny island, Culebra, east of Puerto Rico, and was the first in her family to attend college.  She gained a scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico where she majored in science, and support for a Ph.D. in neuroscience, granted in 2004 by Brandeis University.  Later I had an opportunity to express appreciation for her presentation on soft diplomacy.  She surprised me by saying graciously and earnestly, "You have made my day."  I replied, "I don't know about that, but you certainly made my day."  We hugged, and then as suddenly as she had come, she was gone.
I could not help wonder what her fate might have been fifty years ago.  Chances are she would never have made it off that island.  The schools would not have prepared her for college; her Spanish might not have been proficient - much less her English; the attitude would hardly have been favorable for a girl to pursue science, for a Puerto Rican to warrant financial support for higher education, and for a job at the State Department.  She would have been excluded from the opportunity to serve our country.  
As I returned home I realized that fifty years ago I, and many residents here, would not have been welcome at a Riderwood in Maryland, regardless of our income.  The question is: are we ready to recognize how our struggles on the long road to Riderwood relate to the speaker's short road to the State Department?  The truth regarding Riderwood, however, is that it would not have existed fifty years ago.  The concept of a campus devoted to a lifestyle that extends and enriches our life in a safe, supportive, and stimulating manner had yet to be espoused.  We are actually at the forefront of a movement that capitalizes on diversity to share our talents, and thereby provides greater meaning and enjoyment during these years of our life.  I like to think of Riderwood as our reward for advancing inclusion.
On this occasion, we gather at the center of our campus where we usually seek wisdom, comfort, fellowship, and spirituality, to share the gifts of song, readings and reflections representing the various faiths and cultures of our neighbors.  We give thanks for some progress on the transformation from exclusion to inclusion.  While we are painfully aware that our society is far from the goal, we take comfort that we contributed to the transition, and prepared successive generations for the tasks required by a diverse democracy such as ours.  
So let us join in these joyful celebrations of the New Year, and a rededication to diversity and inclusion throughout this year we will spend here together.  May you share the hope of the Riderwood Diversity and Inclusion Committee that we will continue to set a model of a diverse, inclusive community.