Mary Beth Bass: Can we be bold?

Published 12:45 pm Monday, July 3, 2017

Georgia will be a majority minority state by 2020. Two and a half years. In Sumter County, we have long been a majority minority community. In theory, we should be leaders, an example, of a community that has embraced its cultural diversity and champions inclusivity, reflecting the richness of age, religion, race, gender, class, physical and mental ability — all of the diversity of diversities — that exist throughout the fabric of Sumter County.
The question we must all ask ourselves is, does that ring true for Sumter County? Do we celebrate and embrace all that makes us different, knowing that we are a richer community because of it? Do our community events and institutions reflect the robust diversity and history that exists here? Do we know why it matters to do those things, or do we think they are nice talking points?
A quick Google search that asks, “Why Diversity Matters,” reveals a link to the website for an organization that dedicates itself to such matters — The Diversity Awareness Partnership. Their definition of diversity is simple, “Diversity finds its origin in the word diverse, meaning different. Difference in what? Difference in basically anything — cultures, ideas, values, lifestyles, classes, goals etc. No two people placed side by side will portray the same sets of values or ideals or any of the other factors mentioned above.”
Our demographics are simple, so why is diversity so difficult for us to embrace? Our public offices are fairly integrated, but perhaps nowhere else can that be said with any authenticity. What are we missing out on as a community because we have yet to have honest dialogue about such things? Is it business and industrial growth as our statewide economic development partners suggest? Are there vibrant community events and heritage celebrations we might be missing, like a jazz festival or bluegrass event, or perhaps both? Is there a reason Atlanta and other metro regions of the state are growing and we in South Georgia are declining in population? Are our usual professions of education, poverty, and workforce enough, or are they all related, cyclical and symbiotic? To use an often-used example, in a global economy, does a multinational corporation relate to what they see when they arrive? Even if we had everything else “figured out,” wouldn’t they still see the divide that exists? Would they feel comfortable here — or perhaps more importantly, be willing to bring their top leadership and their families to invest in our local economy and quality of life? We would be richer for it, no doubt, but are we building the foundations that would enable such a reality to exist?
My suggestion to you is that we are, albeit slowly. Over the last several months, a group of key community leaders — black, white, Indian, 20-somethings, and what I would I guess to be 60-somethings, corporate business leaders, elected officials, law enforcement and other public servants, retirees and young professionals just starting their careers, newcomers and oldcomers, National Park officials and even a college president — have begun the process of identifying the key challenges that are prohibiting growth in our community, and in turn, creating a culture in which we prepare for and facilitate change so that growth can occur.
One Sumter, through a partnership with the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development at the University of Georgia, began the Planning for Change Initiative with a series of workshops in February and March that looked at our willingness to take risks and embrace change, first as individuals, and then to extrapolate that out to the community at large. Some 60 Sumter County residents were asked to participate in this first round of discussions, and while the number of participants turned out to be closer to 20, this group of committed individuals created an Action Plan for Change centered what they identified as the greatest opportunity to facilitate growth in Sumter County — to celebrate our cultural diversity and strengthen race relationships across all segments of our community. Of all the topics they could have identified and selected, this competent group of leaders was discerning in their desire to get to the root cause of many of our community’s challenges.
Of course, with any plan, the challenge lies in the how, the who, and the political willingness to actually implement. To be successful, someone actually has to do something with the plan, otherwise it exists as yet another example of something else not followed through on. Just this past week, that same group of community members reconvened to talk about turning the plan into reality — first among their deliberations is the need to create a Diversity Council or Coalition or Commission, yet to be named. The need to do it right is foremost among their concerns, as well as identifying other communities have taken on topics of such importance and of such a sensitive nature. The potential for their efforts is outstanding!
Facilitating change will not be an easy task. Getting others to buy in will likely be even more challenging. But, it’s imperative that we try and that we continue where others may not see value. As most of my columns come back to, it matters.
It matters because we have a mandate from the business community to do something different, to facilitate growth in Sumter County. It matters because diversity, our willingness to embrace or ignore it, infiltrates into the fabric of our everyday lives — the quality of education for our young people, the relationships of men and women as they meet on the street, in our faith communities, the safety of our neighborhoods, the richness of the events in our communities and on our campuses — even the food we find in the aisles in our grocery stores.
We want to be a community of growth, of choice; we want to be a community where the illusive Millennial generation wants to live; we want our young people to come home, stay home; we want jobs for our people; and we want to be a community that lives and breathes being the example of a majority minority community for the rest of the state of Georgia. In order to be those things, we have to take the necessary actions. Doing things the way they’ve been done for the last 30-40 years, regardless of the intentions, will not lead to success in a world that demands more. Our community deserves more, but we have to be bold enough to do more. We must be bold enough to change the way we think, how we measure success and how we hold one another accountable for the things that matter — 20 of your community leaders already have.

Mary Beth Bass is executive director of One Sumter Economic Development Foundation Inc.