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Opinion: Diversity dilemma demands unified community efforts

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It was a snowy night in January when architect Tim Rosenbury took the podium at Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet. As the chamber’s 2010 chairman, it was his responsibility to highlight the challenges and priorities for the year ahead.

It was late. It was dark and cold. It was a Friday night, and most of us were tired and worried about the slippery road home. A run-of-the-mill speech would have had me edging toward an exit. But Rosenbury’s message was clear and urgent: The Springfield area did not possess the cultural diversity required to compete in the national and global economy.
In fact, Rosenbury said, we were the second-least diverse community of our size in the country, second only to Portland, Maine.

Nine months later, his words continue to resonate. I was transfixed and continue to be painfully aware that Rosenbury had indeed spoken the truth.

As we closed the meeting saying good night to attendees, I grasped the hands of friends with whom I had drawn close during volunteer leadership for Springfield Sister Cities Association. As SSCA members, we have been encouraged by the success of our work to promote peace through people, as well as unity in diversity. On that cold night in January, however, we knew that the greatest challenge and responsibility of bringing multicultural experience and understanding to southwest Missouri was still ahead of us. Our work would have more meaning and become more important than ever before.

Months later, Springfield Business Journal’s series of articles about the economic importance of racial and cultural diversity has drawn a flurry of reader comments. As Editor Eric Olson wrote last week in his Eyes and Ears column, the topic is polarizing.

We’ve ruffled a few feathers, Olson wrote, with our coverage of the discussion surrounding the chamber’s efforts to create awareness of the fact that diversity is an economic development handicap.

Everywhere I’ve gone the last couple of weeks, readers tell me they have been reading each installment in the series. People are interested in the topic of diversity, whether they believe we need more of it or they think we are fine with the status quo – white bread every day.

We’ve commented around the conference table in our office that rarely do we see brown and black faces among the many SBJ honorees throughout the year. A vast majority of the outstanding individuals recognized through our annual awards are all white, though this year’s class of Most Influential Women included Francine Pratt, director of Isabel’s House and chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

We have only one nonwhite person on our staff. We’re not proud of this, but we are a reflection of the community as a whole. Springfield has several (I can practically count every one) extremely accomplished men and women from a variety of cultural and racial groups. They each labor courageously, I feel, under enormous pressure because we simply do not have the sheer numbers needed to create a visible presence.

Here’s a good example of the seriousness of our community’s diversity dilemma. I recently heard Carmen Parker Bradshaw, director of The Health Commission, speak to Springfield Rotary Club. She pointed out the dangerous shortage of primary care physicians in Springfield. Local hospitals and medical groups are having grave difficulties in attracting doctors to Springfield, specifically because of the lack of cultural opportunity here.

This same situation plagues other Midwestern communities, too. My son practices internal medicine in Holland, Mich., another white-bread town, but smaller than Springfield. He complains regularly about the physician shortage there. He and his partners are desperately overworked and understaffed. Their patients need attention. But approximately 60 percent of board-certified new practitioners coming out of U.S. residency programs are foreign born, he said. They are mostly married and have families. They feel like fish on a white-sand Lake Michigan beach when they arrive in Holland or Springfield.

And so they move on to Chicago or Kansas City where multicultural opportunities for religion, social life, dating, lifestyle, even food choices, abound.

Chamber executives, business and professional leaders, and regional economic development officials are confronted with the same objections when they approach representatives from a spectrum of industries about locating in the Springfield area. We need new jobs here. Right now, it’s hard to compete, but we can get these critical new jobs for southwest Missouri when and if we – as a community and as individuals – wholeheartedly embrace diversity.

I applaud the Springfield chamber for bringing this vital issue to our attention. The chamber also deserves praise for the way it’s engaged the Tlaquepaque Chamber of Commerce in Mexico for a special reciprocal relationship as a “sister city” of Springfield.
This is a good start and a great example.

In a sense, our chamber is challenging us to be active listeners, to be open to welcoming the world to our neighborhood. As Olson expressed so well in his column, “Just listen, so that we can observe how other people see Springfield and learn about the global perspectives they bring to our small community. That’d be a short yet profound step.”

There’s no need to be offended when the subject of a too-white Springfield is broached. We’re all going to have to accept the challenge and the responsibility together. Just as the Sister Cities effort draws its volunteers together in close friendships as we work for a common cause, this community will gain strength through unity.

Springfield Business Journal Publisher Dianne Elizabeth Osis can be reached at
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