This is the latest installment in the Signs of Sustainability series, organized by Sustainable Tompkins.  Visit them online at sustainabletompkins.org. This installment was written by Margo Hittleman, co-founder and coordinator of the Natural Leaders Initiative (NLI) and a community educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension-Tompkins.

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ITHACA, NY – To successfully address climate change, we must shift from pursuing diversity “because we should” and recognize that “If we don’t, we will fail.” Here’s why, along with some ideas for how. The need to “cultivate diversity” is a foundational requirement for those working on ecological sustainability.

Without it, biological systems are weak and vulnerable to collapse. “Diversity is one of the most important energy storages in any ecosystem and a good measure of the level of available information,” writes Peter Bane in The Permaculture Handbook.

The same is true for resilient communities. Without the multiple viewpoints, broader information base and greater thinking capacity of highly diverse groups, the information available for problem-solving and decision-making will fall short of what we need to ensure human and planetary survival. Research on the “wisdom of crowds” documents them again and again. Baseball great Satchel Paige said it more succinctly, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

7 ideas for cultivating diversity

Yet in spite of good intentions, local sustainability leaders cite building and sustaining diverse relationships and leadership as an ongoing challenge. Several years ago, the Natural Leaders Initiative (NLI) developed the From Scarcity to Abundance: Cultivating Diverse Leadership workshops to help. Here are seven suggestions from that work.

1 – Centralize the connections between the four major social challenges of our time: climate change, racism, poverty, and militarism. Greed – the extraction of material and human resources to benefit small groups of humans – underlies each of these challenges. Restoring the environment requires ending the theft of resources that allows some to have material advantage over others.

Rather than debating about which of these issues is “most urgent” or needs to be addressed “first,” we can seek to end climate change and social inequities together, committing our shared resources to a good life for all.

2 – Adopt a relationship-building focus; shift from “do and tell” to “ask and learn.” It’s common for organizations to spend much of their time on “recruiting” and “outreach,” trying to “sell” others on their ideas. We forget that few people are eager to build relationships with those who have it “all figured out” and just want others to come along for the ride. (Just think about whose company you enjoy and whose you don’t!).

Further, believing we already have the solutions leaves us vulnerable to a dangerous mindset: we don’t know what we don’t know. To build diverse relationships and generate new ideas, it can help to practice the shift from “do and tell” and to “ask and learn.”

3 – Support the “natural leaders” around you. In a quest for diversity, many organizations repeatedly tap the same small pool of over-extended, visible “leaders” while overlooking the diverse groups of “natural leaders” all around them. This pool of creativity, talent and passion is the largest untapped asset in Tompkins County. Their ideas, knowledge and work is often ignored.

When they are seen, it is usually to ask “them” to help “our” cause succeed. In the long run, building mutually benefit relationships is more efficient and effective than outreach and recruiting. Consider seeking out natural leaders and learning what they are doing. Honor their knowledge and work. Ask how you can help them succeed (and even further your own mission in the process).

4 – Inventory and use your resources to build relationships. Community groups often have a narrow view of available resources. To become more strategic, try making a list of all the resources you and your organization have access to (e.g., time, relationships, skills, physical resources, etc.) Consider how you can share these resources to help build the diverse relationships you want.

5 – Aim for 5% shifts. Fostering change doesn’t require that you (or your organization) completely change course. Small actions have ongoing ripple effects.

6 – Build yourself a diverse support network. Difficulties in bridging social “divides” are systemic, not our personal failings. Systems-change requires intentionally and consistently “paddling upstream.” It rquires changing not just individual, but also organizational habits. If we are not supported to remain intentional and consistent in our efforts, we will quickly find ourselves floating downstream.

7 – Remember that “If we don’t, we will fail.” Diversity is a key measure of a system’s resiliency, whether that system is ecological or social. Cultivating diversity, then, is not something we need to do solely “because we should” but because “If we don’t, we will fail.” The stakes are far too high to allow that.

NLI’s From Scarcity to Abundance workshops help people notice what they are already doing well, reflect on what they want to do differently, take new, innovative steps to build diverse relationships and leadership, develop a supportive and diverse change network. Past participants are using these ideas to further their organizations’ missions in ways that are more effective and satisfying. You are welcome to join us.

Margo Hittleman is co-founder and coordinator of the Natural Leaders Initiative (NLI) and a community educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension-Tompkins. NLI’s next From Scarcity to Abundance workshop series begins on March 24, co-facilitated with Phoebe Brown. Margo may be reached at mjh17@cornell.edu or 272-2292 x 167. She is glad to talk with anyone who wants help applying these ideas to their work.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.