Leadership means inclusion: A lesson in multiculturalism

We are on a precipice, the societal paradigm is shifting and multiculturalism is about to become the order of the day. This was the message from Juana Bordas at the fourth event in the “Many Threads, One Fabric” national town hall series sponsored by the New York State United Teachers and AFT Feb. 4. Bordas, a nationally recognized Latina leader and activist, described a society that is evolving to embrace many traditions, where people share power, respect the contributions of every person and value the common good over individual gain.

many threads one fabric featuring Juana Bordas

Bordas, who was born in Nicaragua and immigrated to the United States when she was 4, shares her vision in her book Salsa, Soul, and Spirit, and in her work as a leadership and diversity activist. As demographics shift, globalism expands and technology connects us across the hemispheres, she says, “by the middle of this century we will no longer have a dominant culture.”

And that is a good thing. “The dominant culture was pretty monolithic,” she says. “Even Anglos were asked to change their names, forget where they came from and cut their roots when they came to this country.” Multiculturalism, on the other hand, “believes that the philosophies, the values, the history, the practices, the influences, and the assets and gifts of every different group are something that will contribute to a beautiful tapestry of humanity.” Instead of a melting pot, this diverse collection of people and cultures can be a salad, or a paella, with each ingredient retaining its flavor and texture but still being a part of the whole.

Applying this notion to leadership means perceiving leaders as equals and understanding that “every single person deserves respect and has something to contribute.” In Spanish, people say, “en cada cabeza hay un mundo,” says Bordas—in every head there is a whole world. In the current dominant culture, everyone from the people who clean buildings to the individuals who plan special events or those who interact with school parents are equally important, each playing a unique role.

The beloved community

In addition to honoring individuals, those who are in traditional leadership positions also have a responsibility to act as guardians of larger public values. “If we’re going to have a multicultural society, we need to create what Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the beloved community,’” says Bordas, who believes that community is what has allowed people of color to come so far.

many threads one fabric featuring Juana Bordas zoom screen

“Communities of color have only gotten to where we are because of the relentless activism of our leaders,” she says. “How is it that some of us are now educated, are able to provide for our families, that we have people in leadership positions? Because we kept pushing the needle for 500 years, whether it was overcoming slavery or colonization or women being excluded even from voting.”

Bordas also describes this concept of community-building as choosing “we” over “me.” “That sense of ‘we’ is an important shift that we need to make if we’re going to really build the multicultural society and look at inclusion as something that we embrace for everybody,” she says, noting that women and communities of color are already adept at this practice.

Finally, Bordas describes the importance of sharing abundance, of not taking more than is needed. “I don’t need to take more than my share,” she says. “The Latino culture has a great one for this: Mi casa es tu casa [my house is your house]. Generosity is more important that accumulation. We cannot have this division. We cannot have a society based on materialism, on acquisition, on accumulation.”

When asked about how to bring this concept of multiculturalism into the workplace, Bordas talked about tapping the talents and traditions of all workers from different cultures, getting to know them and embracing them. “Everybody in your organization really has a contribution to make; as a leader, I need to make an environment where that can happen.”

She also addressed the pain of being expected to comply to the dominant culture—using the example a NYSUT member offered, of having her birth name misspelled on her birth certificate by a white nurse who was unfamiliar with Indian names. Bordas told her those personal wounds must be healed in order to move forward and build a more multicultural society now—and then one must find the role to play moving forward. Will it be peacemaker? Activist? Will it be sitting in a room as the only person of color, integrating white spaces? Everyone has a different role, and each is important.

The kind of change Bordas described takes time—“paso a paso,” as she describes it, “step by step.” But, she told participants, “If we can get enough people on board, we can make this transition in your lifetime.”

All “Many Threads, One Fabric” events are available to watch here.

[Virginia Myers]