Let’s Have an Identity Crisis

June 13, 2013

 

In the midst of a trip throughout Ecuador, re-connecting with the country where I graduated high school, I had the opportunity yesterday to speak at my high school, Academia Cotopaxi, addressing a mix of 6th-10th graders.

My speech consisted of two main themes.  The first focused on Generation Citizen – the reason I created it (namely, the energy I felt in emerging democracies like Kenya and Ecuador, and trying to re-create that enthusiasm state-side) and the importance of youth voice.  The second was a little more nuanced – I tried to weave a personal identity crisis that I feel like I’m having into a larger discussion on cross-cultural learning that can happen when people from diverse backgrounds interact, which is what happens every day at Cotopaxi.  I think that the theme might have been a little above the head of the sixth graders, but it’s one that I’m thinking a lot about these days, and one that I think is important, both personally, but also for the work of Generation Citizen (and the larger sector).

From a personal perspective, I’ve been thinking a lot about my identity as I conclude my eighth straight year in the United States, and get ready to spend a third year in New York City, which is ages for me.  Those that know me know that I talk incessantly about my experiences growing up abroad, and the formative impact that it played on my current work and perspectives.  It still does, but the problem that I’m having internally is that I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m actually pretty damn American.  Granted, there’s no such thing as a typical American in our melting pot of a nation.  But, I feel more at home in the U.S. than I do abroad.  I live for football Sundays, follow American politics like many follow the Khardasians, and almost all of my friends are pure American born and bred.

So why does this bother me a little bit?  Well, at the same time that I’m having this mini “identity crisis” of figuring out who I am, Generation Citizen is doing the same.  As we get bigger, and beyond the start-up phase, it’s incumbent on us to better define our culture and organizational values, rather than solely relying on five employees really liking each other to get the job done.

But as we talk about culture and values, the notion of diversity is coming up a lot.  To be blunt, which I think needs to happen in these conversations, our staff (and Board) is too white, too Ivy League-centric, and probably, too progressively-leaning for an organization that really does need to be non-partisan.

But I also want to clarify why I think this is important.  Diversity for the sake of diversity is a dangerous road to travel down.  The problem that I’m starting to have is that, for an organization that focuses on empowering previously un-engaged young people to make a difference in their communities through the political process, the majority of Generation Citizen’s backbone is comprised of individuals that have always been able to engage, if they want to.  And by missing the opposite perspective, namely, from people that have been oppressed in some form by a slightly broken political system, we’re missing a crucial voice at the table that could help us dramatically improve our programming.

Some of this is our fault – we need to work to diversify every part of our organization, from our Democracy Coaches to our staff to our Board, for the reasons described above.  And I am committed to making that happen.  But some of the fault for this lies in the sector at large.

Namely, and being honest again, one of the main reasons that Generation Citizen is as successful as it is today (and we have a long  way to go) is that I, the founder, came from an upper-middle class family, got a great education, had supportive parents, and went to an Ivy League school. Thus, when I had an idea, I quickly had an army of supporters that wanted to help, and already trusted me.  I’m not saying my hard work didn’t play a role – it did.  But the social entrepreneurial movement suffers from placing too much faith in folks like me, who are already really connected, and too little in individuals and organizations that do not have my pedigree, for a variety of reasons.

This “movement” either rewards pedigree, or cares about diversity to the extent that it is important to see color on the Board or leadership team. I have seen foundation applications where we literally have to calculate the percentage of our team that is African-American. This encourages quota treatment, rather than the type of diversity I write about above.  Additionally, while GC does need to get better on diversity, without knowing our team, you wouldn’t know that multiple staff members (and Board members) are the first in their family to go to college, while others spent a majority of their childhood abroad.

So, as I travel throughout Ecuador, trying to learn more about my own increasingly American identity, GC is trying to figure out its own. Which is really hard. But it’s also impossible to do alone.  This entire sector needs to figure out how to have a conversation on the importance of diversity, determine which voices are currently missing from the conversation (a lot), and have the conversations on how to get to a better, more inclusive place.  But the problem is that these conversations are really uncomfortable.  They require people like me admitting that our background and pedigree have helped our organizations be successful.  They involve bringing people to the table that might disagree with our approaches.  But it’s necessary. I think it’s high time for all of us to have an identity crisis.

~Scott Warren, Generation Citizen Executive Director

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