Canada is viewed by many as a land of opportunity, and British Columbia (BC) is a highly sought after destination for newcomers - they frequently cite the people, our climate, and the quality of life as being key reasons for choosing to live in BC (BC's advantageous position as the 'Asia-Pacific Gateway' also plays a role here). In an effort to welcome newcomers to our country (and province) and to promote the benefits of having a culturally diverse society, Canada has formally embraced a policy of multiculturalism, which essentially goes a little something like this: "Welcome immigrants. We value diversity. Our doors are open to individuals from all corners of the world and from all walks of life. Come experience the magic of tolerance and diversity with us." Well, maybe not exactly like that...but you get the picture. Canadians are exceedingly proud of our multiculturalist values; we jump on every single change to publicly talk about how open and accepting we are to/of new people from a variety of backgrounds. We should give ourselves a pat on the back for being so good at this whole diversity/inclusion/welcoming communities thing!
Or should we? Here in BC, recent evidence is indicating that a high proportion of newcomers are actually leaving within their first few years here, highlighting major difficulties with respect to their ability to integrate effectively into our communities. *Note, when I use the term "communities," I'm thinking broadly - workplaces, neighbourhoods, social networks, etc.etc.).* Hmmm...are we really doing such a good job after all? Do we, in fact, truly value diversity? I have a theory; allow me to explain (it just might take me a few paragraphs...).
I read an article earlier this week entitled "Building Communities Through Language Learning," which focused on the many roles that technology can play in helping newcomers learn language, networking, career search, and interpersonal skills, all of which are supposed to help them integrate effectively into our communities. As I was reading, one statement, in particular, jumped out at me. The author was attempting to make a point about the benefits of online dictionaries for immigrants, specifically pronunication aides, highlighting that "online dictionaries help learners improve their vocabulary, pronunciation. and reduce their accent." ...Reduce their accent?
Tell me, why should the rest of us not learn to listen through accents, regardless of how unfamiliar they may seem? Does the presence of an accent present such difficulty in conversing with someone whose mother tongue is not English, that we must encourage that person (and other newcomers) to get rid of theirs? What about people with lisps - should we be encouraging them to get rid of their lisps so that they "fare better" in our communities? Why is having an unfamiliar accent so socially unacceptable? I mulled over this question for a moment, and then it struck me - the entire premise of the article was focused on immigrants needing to change...needing to adapt...needing to be different, in order to be accepted into our communities. I saw nothing about the rest of us, us non-newcomers, needing to change...needing to learn...needing to be open to the notion of "difference." No wonder recent immigrants are leaving! We're placing the burden of change and the onus of "integration" fully on their shoulders, while paying little attention to the question of what we need to do to be more welcoming and inclusive. If I were an immigrant, I would probably leave too! Perhaps we don't value diversity as much as we think we do...
Should we despair? Is hope for a better outcome lost? Negative! Take heart folks, change starts with us. Read on...
So what do we need to do? Well, for starters, we need to move beyond the "welcome-to-our-country-now-that-you're-here-it's-up-to-you-to-fit-in" mentality, and start thinking about more of an interculturalist approach to community integration. Interculturalism means generating a mutual understanding of where everyone is coming from, what we believe, and why we believe what we believe...both "us" and "them." We learn about them. They learn about us. We understand and respect one another, and from this place (this honest place), we can begin to build a community. We can build it together, using the many wonderful and exciting things that we have learned from one another along the way. It really isn't that hard, it just requires a different way of thinking about it.
Secondly, if we believe that diversity is a key element of community (and I think most of us do), we need to think about what we can learn from this example. Truly diverse communities are not built by one person, or a group of like-minded individuals. Developing and sustaining vibrant and diverse communities means having the courage to learn about others and where they are coming from, even if the things you learn are so crazily different from what you already know that it is just a little bit scary. It also must involve a willingness to accept difference (in views, appearances, cultural traditions, accent, etc.etc.) and to welcome change. It is not about forcing one group to conform with a certain way of thinking, talking, dressing, or acting; rather, it is about leveraging individual uniqueness to generate new ways of thinking, talking, dressing, acting, etc.etc.. Community-building is a two way street, friends, we all have to be open to difference if, indeed, we care about generating "ideas from everywhere." It begins with us!