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Podcast #146: Our Compelling Interests: A Panel on Diversity and Democracy


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We frequently hear about diversity, but why is diversity important? Recently, with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we hosted Our Compelling Interests: A Panel on Diversity and Democracy, a panel gathered to address the critical role of diversity in democracy. Participants included Kevin Young, the award-winning poet and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; Brian Lehrer, Host of WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show; Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Nicole Gelinas, Senior Fellow at The Manhattan Institute and Contributing Editor of City Journal; Anthony W. Marx, President of The New York Public Library; Maria Contreras-Sweet, Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration; Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark and editor of the Our Compelling Interests series; and Earl Lewis, an editor of Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society. For this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Lehrer, Ifill, Young, Contreras-Sweet, Marx, Gelinas, and Cantor discussing our compelling interests in diverse democracy.


Maria Contreras-Sweet focused on the economic benefits of diversity, considering in particular gender:

"I think that's an important challenge for our country is how we make sure that we're dispersing capital in an appropriate way. I'm from California, and I can tell you that right now venture capital is concentrated in three states. That's California, New York, and Massachusetts. And only four percent of that capital is going to women today. Some argue five or six percent. You know, I'll give them the six percent. It's still fifty-one percent of our population getting six percent. So I think if we really think hard, we would say that women have more than four percent of the good ideas."

Beyond economics, Sherrilyn Ifill considered how segregation negatively effects the country:

"The question for me is not whether just we know one another but whether we regard one another as worthy to be known. I do think that talking about the benefits of diversity as an economic matter is always helpful because there are people who can hear that argument, but I think we need to start talking about the consequences of segregation, which is an old school word, you know, the S word. But the consequences of segregation: I think we are seeing the consequences of segregation, and I think we have to begin talking about the way in which segregation threatens a democratic experiment that is this country, that is uniquely valuable and requires that we reframe our diversity conversation to be less about seeing diversity as conferring a benefit on black people or Latino people or women and instead conferring a benefit on the entire society as a whole."

Gelinas was interested in considering how America is not only racially or religiously diverse but also how it is diverse in its mixture of different cities, towns, and rural areas:

"That's the other type of diversity I wanted people to consider as well: diversity between cities and non-cities, whether they're suburbs or rural areas, and diversity between cities. Interestingly, in the election, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders talked about the problems of the inner city. They both used that phrase. But that phrase has become meaningless. Donald Trump lives in the inner city. He's a few blocks, a couple blocks north of us, I guess. A city like New York has different problems than a city like Detroit or a city like Buffalo, where a lot of the economic anxiety that New York has is because the city is doing so well. People feel like they're squeezed out, and that is not something that is confined to poorer people. This effects middle class people and even upper middle class people as well. They see rapid changes that they have no control over, and often times, government institutions instead of pushing back against the economic cycle, they are exacerbating it. People are concerned, for example, about Airbnb and taking affordable housing off the market by turning these apartments into hotel rooms, they are kind of painted into a corner and the governing class says, 'Well you just don't know very much about the economy. This is how an efficient economy works.' I think New York has a better balance than a lot of parts of the country at being able to push back against some of these economic forces. But part of that is because we're such a wealthy city, one final thing that we do right, that we do correctly, that we should think more about, is smart infrastructure investment. One of the keys to mobility in New York is the subway system. If you are poor here, you don't have to own a car. You can get to a job. You're not waiting at a bus stop for four hours. That is something that cuts across race and class and works for everyone."

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