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Opinion: Diversity discussion brings out dissenters

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The topic of diversity is polarizing in so many ways.

That’s understandable, especially in America, where the fights for women, blacks and now illegal immigrants and gay rights are part of our fabric.

Springfield Business Journal’s newsroom staff knew as we were planning a series covering diversity that alarms would sound.

It wasn’t our intention to just ruffle feathers with the coverage, but as with all of our news content, we aimed to report on the actual business happenings in our community. Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce has set diversity among its annual priorities. I think we’ve met our goals in reporting that discussion.

In our reporting, we profiled three members of the minority community – a single black working woman, an Indian hotel owner and a gay businessman.

Along the way, the topic in the paper did disturb some readers. Our newsroom received a higher-than-normal number of reader responses on this subject.

Of all the responses, from informal comments to official letters to the editor – some fair, some attacking – we chose one to put before you.

Comments ranged from a caller taking exception to the fact that there was a gay man on our cover to terse e-mails with personal jabs about the negativity we were conveying.

As a paper, SBJ neither advocates for nor against nonwhite or gay businesspeople in the exact same way it neither advocates for nor against a business covered in a story. Truth be told, SBJ could have published a hundred gay or lesbian businesspeople on its covers during the last 30 years, but nobody knew it. The gentleman on the Sept. 27 cover was simply speaking candidly in an interview on the topic of sexual orientation and its impact on his business and on him as a businessman.

I want to address some of the statements brought to us, because they may be widespread. I don’t know. I am concerned some in the audience may have missed the point.

I’ve been told that identifying a gay man in a cover photo was “inappropriate,” “offensive” and “dumb.”

The fact that he’s a gay businessman is exactly why he was a source for this coverage. It makes sense in the context of the story and the series in which we reported on diversity discussions in motion. To the point that one’s sexual orientation is a personal matter and doesn’t affect business, we treat it the same way we would identify a senior manager’s age in a story about pension plans or would disclose the type of cancer a businessperson is fighting in a story about the costs of the disease and its toll on a company.

Businesspeople are affected by their stated cultures, be that in heritage or community.

As soon as I think the gay and lesbian population is a minute portion of our community, I notice that No. 7 on SBJ’s largest networking groups list is Focus Inc. with 100 local members. Focus limits membership to gays and lesbians and notes business networking and philanthropy as key member functions. According to SBJ research, its networking group peers, in terms of membership, are Sertoma Club of Springfield with 111 members and Heart of the Ozarks Sertoma Club with 98. That’s respectable company in terms of numbers.

I know it’s unusual to speak about race and sexuality in our pages. But if it’s identified as a priority by business leaders, the first step is bringing the topic to the surface. I think we were effective in doing so, like the topic or not.

What I hope to see is that we can listen to other’s cultural stories and not be offended or respond with attacks. 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 is no culturally perfect place on this earth. I don’t get the impression Springfield’s business leaders are out to reshape our community into what they’ve deemed perfect. I get the sense that they’ve identified our city’s current cultural profile as prohibitive to certain aspects of economic development. Diversity becomes a business matter when a corporation snubs Springfield because it’s viewed as “too white” for its corporate culture or when an existing business has difficulty recruiting top talent here because the cultural experience desired by the recruit is lacking.

Talking about it and sharing peoples’ stories do not inherently equal negativity. It’s an ongoing discussion, and the preconceived perceptions are as such that to even bring up diversity is to call it negative.

In the end, a question lingers in my mind: What would we lose if the city became more diverse?

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.
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