America is truly a melting pot, a place where people from all walks of life come together, creating a diverse community of perspectives and experiences. This diversity is especially prominent this primary election season; candidates represent their different political parties but also different genders, religions, ethnicities, ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This is reminiscent of the presidential race four years ago, which saw a practicing Mormon venture capitalist run against a biracial community organizer. In no other part of the world would we see such a breadth of voices during an election. Yet during a time when we should be focused on our unity as a people, we tend instead to fixate on our differences, oversimplifying them into narrow, reductive labels — socialist, capitalist, demagogue — that strip away an individual’s dimensions and breed contempt and negativity. In this political year we get so hung up on these superficial labels that we miss the forest for the trees; we lose respect and forget our shared goals as Americans.
The antidote can be found at any Boys & Girls Club across the country. Whether on a Native American reservation, military base, public housing development, or city street, young people at the Boys & Girls Club of America make no negative distinctions in race, religion, or gender, but instead unify around a community of belonging and opportunity. These kids have not pre-judged anyone based on a label, but have created their own diverse communities with professional adult staff members who celebrate together, mourn together, and play together peacefully and respectfully. The Club fosters a sense of community that its members take into the world with them; 92 percent of Club alumni say that helping others is a priority of theirs, and 81 percent say that their participation at the Club helped them develop a sense of responsibility to give back to their community. The time these young people spend together at the Club helps them grow into understanding, open-minded citizens — 91 percent of members who attend the Boys & Girls Club regularly say they can stand up for what is right, even if their friends disagree.
Meanwhile, on the political playground, candidates throw labels and distinctions at each other, promoting a reactionary rather than open-minded citizenship. Accusations are hurled, political rallies turn violent, arrests are made. Although elections represent all of the potential good of our country, it is not being realized. The candidates involved could take a lesson from the young people at Boys & Girls Clubs, who are working together and moving forward at an inspiring pace. They are motivated to learn from one another, and they know they can’t do that through conflict.
The message is clear at Boys & Girls Clubs: When we provide equal opportunities for all, we can move past the ineffective, intolerant kind of citizenship that is dominating today’s election scene and come together as advanced, enlightened citizens moving toward a common goal. And there are countless practical benefits to implementing the kind of climate that has evolved organically at Boys & Girls Clubs. Scott E. Page, author of “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies” suggests that decision-making is at its finest and most effective when the decision-makers are at their most diverse. In a 2008 interview in The New York Times, Page states “diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it.” Further, he states, “There’s certainly a lot of evidence that people’s identity groups — ethnic, racial, sexual, age — matter when it comes to diversity in thinking.” Differing opinions and disagreement can be constructive; when we do not allow them to cloud issues and segregate us completely, they can lead to positive change.
As Americans, it is time for us to look deeper. In challenging times, the easy way out is to simplify others, but this will only serve to degrade us. We cannot deny ourselves the resources of other people’s history, vision, intellect, and compassion by reducing them to a label. Don’t get me wrong: We are far from perfect, but we have it better in this country than almost anywhere else in the world. Our strength as Americans has always been our community. But now more than ever it is time to look to community organizations like the Boys & Girls Club, where our children are learning how to treat each other as fellow citizens and human beings. If they can do it, so can we.
Josh Kraft is president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Boston.