by Kevin Hofmann Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion April is Celebrate Diversity Month as well as Earth month! When I heard this is the month to celebrate diversity, I envision people all over the world inviting people who are not like them for dinner, they sit around a large table and stare at each other, waiting for cultural understanding to come through osmosis. The understanding never comes, and everyone leaves hungry because they were too nervous to eat while the powerfully diverse environment and the opportunity to learn is wasted. My wife and I have a small garden contained in three large metal oblong troughs that stand about three feet tall. It is an elevated garden because our aging backs insisted on it. In those containers, we mostly grow all kinds of peppers, from mild jalapeños to ghost peppers, which are hot enough to remove several layers of paint. Each year we prepare the soil because the better the soil, the better the peppers. If we don’t properly aerate the soil, the seeds will not take root or they will grow a stunted version of what they could have been. Creating an environment where the seeds are comfortable makes all the difference. A seed can’t flourish in a hostile unwelcoming environment. People are the same, yet we often do this when we talk about diversity. So much time is spent on bringing in as many diverse people as possible and then we can’t understand why they do not thrive. They fail to thrive because no attention was paid to the environment in which they would be placed. When I worked with schools, I would always get the question, “How can we create a more diverse teaching staff?” This was usually butted up against the statement, “We have brought in diverse candidates, but they don’t stay long.” My response is the same to both questions. “What have you done to create a welcoming environment for your new employees? What have you done to prepare the soil so the new 'seeds' can thrive? Is there a support system in place for the employee? Is there a Black community for the Black teachers that gives them a place to exhale? Very often diversity and inclusion are used synonymously, but they are quite different. I prefer to talk about inclusion a little differently. I prefer to use the phrase, “Creating a sense of belonging,” instead of the term inclusion. Creating a sense of belonging means that we have turned over the soil, added nutrients, and prepared the soil to welcome the new seeds. Once the seeds are placed in the soil they feel “at home.” That “at home” feeling gives them room to exhale and an opportunity to be seen and heard. They, in turn, feel a part of our community. Allowing them to bring their full selves to the community benefits us all. We benefit from their unique input, ideas, and experiences. So what does that look like? It means that we make room to talk about and learn from different cultures. We seek to hear voices different from our own and we commit to understanding we all don’t see the world the same way. It means being OK with that and being open to the fact that our way may not be the best way or the only way. It means understanding we are the cultivators of our environment. We have control over whether the environment is suitable for growth or too acidic to support life. As spring approaches (please, oh please, let it be coming), let’s concentrate on building a community that is capable of supporting diversity. If we can do that, our community and garden will flourish.