What Cordell Taught Me About Diversity

Cordell (far right, suit), Me (middle, offensively unstylish turquoise shirt)

Diversity:

1. ethnic variety, as well as socioeconomic and gender variety, in a group, society, or institution.

2. A cliché term used in mission statements, tag lines, sales pitches, and school websites to show that an organization is more than just a bunch of people who look the same.

On the first day of first grade at Cook Elementary School in Flint, I noticed I was one of three white kids. I was too young to recognize the novelty of my situation but old enough to feel uncomfortable. Some time that first day, a smiling, stout little kid with glasses approached me and asked if I wanted to be his friend.

Turns out we lived a block from each other and ended up spending countless afternoons hanging out, laughing, talking sports, and having deep, seemingly endless conversations about things that mattered.

We both enrolled in Flint’s Magnet Program in elementary school, a place where true diversity of thought, creed, class, race, existed. Cordell and I were lynchpins in a posse of class clowns whose mission was to earn As and Bs while acting like complete imbeciles. (Apologies to Ms. Butler, Mr. Butler, Mr. Debevec, and Ms. Hearn for all of our indiscretions, and thanks for being truly amazing teachers).

Though we remained in contact, Cordell and I parted ways in middle school (I moved across town to a whiter, more affluent area) and then reunited for high school. I remember heated debates in 9th grade English about controversial, complex social and political issues like race and class. Cordell’s bellowing, full-bodied laugh always cut the tension of these arguments. I longed for that laugh because I often left these arguments feeling as uncomfortable as I did that first day at Cook. I found myself questioning my beliefs, and wondered if Cordell thought, no matter how close we were, I would never really understand him. After all, I was just a privileged white kid.

Since those days in Flint, which we still reminisce on as some of our best, Cordell and my paths have converged and diverged: he studied African American History with plans to become a teacher and is now working in the private sector; I studied journalism and ended up in public education. Cordell coached baseball in Dexter; I coached golf in Redford. He’s a bachelor; I’m married with two kids. He moved back to Flint; I live in Ann Arbor. He believes in the power of social media; I’m convinced it’s a hellscape of broken dreams. He’s got a deep understanding of the history of Black oppression; I’ll probably never truly get it.

A few days ago, I shot Cordell a text (unfortunately that is now our primary form of communication) to get his take on the presidential elections. In a few words, he challenged me, then shared an article about the folly of the “Everyone needs college” argument. I read the article, processed it, and shared it with several people. Again, I began to question the foundations of my belief system, partly because of what it said mostly because of who shared it with me.

So what does this all have to do with diversity? I believe diversity (of thought, creed, race, political views, etc) holds the most power when it’s set in common experiences and deep relationships. Yes, there is value in reading about other people’s experiences in interacting with people of diverse backgrounds. But it’s only because I see Cordell as a complex human with nuanced (and sometimes fluid) ideologies and values, that I can learn and grow from him and actually change my mind.

Last month, we brought 50 students to U of M Ann Arbor for a tour that focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. When I looked at the pictures of this visit, I felt like I was looking at the Flint Magnet Program all over again: bright, thoughtful young people with diverse backgrounds sharing a common, powerful experience (see pictures below).

During panel discussions, U of M students and staff talked about the importance of learning to study with, break bread with, and live with people whose backgrounds were vastly different from their own. At one point, I teared up, overcome with a unique emotion – some combination of nostalgia and pride. While many first-gen, minority, and rural students struggle mightily with this transition, because of the common, diverse experiences and deep relationships, I believe our students will be just fine. That is a credit to the program, the school, our staff, but most importantly the students and you, the parents.

Cordell, if you’re reading this, thanks for being such a good teacher all these years.

* A giant thank you to my good friend and Flint Magnet product Mischa Boardman, Kat Walsh, Alesha Montgomery, DJ Hawkins, Catalina Ormsby, Laura Saavedra, DJ Jackson, Antonio Junior-Robins, and everyone else affiliated with U of M’s Center for Educational Outreach who made this possible. It was truly an amazing experience and one that created several future Wolverines.

SOURCES

“Educated Fools.” Thomas Geoghegan. The New Republic.https://newrepublic.com/article/156000/educated-fools-democrats-misunderstand-politics-social-class

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