Next Saturday, Community Brave, in collaboration with Social Innovation Sydney will run a day-long symposium entitled “Diversity in Innovation.” The event is designed to bring together Sydney’s LGBTQI community with the social innovation community to “build networks, collaborate in education and harness the power of social connections to fulfill their project needs.” While I’m looking forward to the event immensely, both to giving a talk entitled “The Accidental Bully: Asking Queer Questions” and to seeing what comes of the day, it felt necessary, in advance of the event, to take the time to reflect on “Diversity in Innovation” as a concept within itself.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been re-reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, both to remind myself of Whitman’s great American myth, the America that I, too, as a young American poet still have in my sights, and to prepare myself to return to the States in just a few weeks, going home to Brooklyn and padding around Fort Greene Park remembering that Whitman was there. When I stand on that ground, next month, I want to be ready to make space for Whitman, and so I went back to the text.
In the course of going back, I found that Whitman’s take on diversity raised questions for me about what place diversity might have in innovation and, more pressingly, whether the work of innovation, as Whitman sees it, is antithetical to diversity at its best. I took the following excerpt from “Song of Myself,” the first long poem in Leaves of Grass, lines 327, 344-348, 353-360. Here, Whitman argues for a comprehensive diversity that includes all ways of being and, seemingly, defies being innovated or optimized:
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,…
A farmer, mechanic, or artist…a gentleman, sailor,
lover or quaker,
A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or
I resist anything better than my own diversity,
and breathe the air and leave plenty after me,
These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands,
they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or
next to nothing,
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle
they are nothing…
This is the common air that bathes the globe
This is the breath of laws and songs and behaviour…
If, as I’ve argued previously, the work of a social innovator is to re-strategize approaches to civil society and its mechanics, embedded in that process is necessarily the act of choosing a set of best practices. Social innovators are born optimizers. The tenets of social innovation are grounded in seeing what is and improving its systems, and therefore in having expertise on the ideal systems used to approach any particular issue, within the framework of social innovation. To put forth an ideal necessarily privileges a way of thinking, or several ways of thinking and a course, or several courses of action. This flies in the face of Whitman’s assessment of the thoughts that make up a global approach to collectivity that: “If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing.”
Whitman advocates for an approach to diversity in which all voices have the opportunity to align themselves along the premise of basic human connectivity, a “common air that bathes the globe” in which Whitman says: “I resist anything better than my own diversity,” where that self is a collective self, as it often is in the text, and where to “better” the collective diversity would be, very literally, to optimize it.
The selectivity of the voices involved in the work of Social Innovation is determined by the belief of those voices that they warrant being heard, and the belief of the greater community that those voices are especially valid in a discourse that nonetheless promotes equality. People of any background can use the tools of social innovation to become changemakers, and this is powerful, but those tools are still limited, and are still managed by a limited set of channels and a limited set of thinking.
If innovation is really interested in taking on the work of “diversity,” the work, Whitman would argue, that’s central to perpetuating the kind of global impact social innovators like to talk about, then those conversations will have to include diversity of approach and diversity of goals as well as diversity of background. The field of social innovation invites people of all backgrounds to come together to think in a particular way with a particular tools. Many other fields also do this. If innovation is the approach of the future, it needs to be open to greater structural experimentation to compliment the great diversity of applications it currently puts forth. The social innovation community will, in short, need to diversify its current definition of diversity. In order to do so, it may need to become clear on what constitutes that original definition in the first place.
Whitman puts forth language that suggests that some of the biggest opportunities for change are in changes to collective thinking, which in turn require changes to collective language. Social innovators are pedagogically oriented toward action before they’re oriented toward discourse, and yet there’s immense power in seeing a fundamental change to collective language as its own action-oriented goal.
What’s so powerful, to me, about Whitman’s language is that he identifies a common human element and speaks of diversity in a way that celebrates the myriad approaches to being human, without trying to choose one set of voices to lead the way in the singular celebration of others. Innovation, it seems, might make Whitman nervous, if it necessitates the privileging of certain voices and modes of thinking, if it comes prepared to optimize before it humanizes, albeit in the name of the greater human cause, where Whitman raises all his human characters to their optimal human expression, their best selves, and mandates that we, thus unified, follow his lead. For Whitman, humans are at their best when they can celebrate their basic collective humanness, and so to optimize in a way that detracts from the multivalence of that celebration is, so Whitman would argue, to move in retrograde.
Is it possible to lead the way for necessary, productive change while supporting a diversity of approach as well as that of the voices included? What if we changed the kinds of thinking we included in our definition of innovation? What if the first step toward innovation were based in understanding our respective language for talking about our world and, most importantly, for making space for the “common air” of collective human experience that our language supports?