• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


Building a Better Multiculturalism

Civic leaders play a central role in shaping a healthy, diverse democracy.

October 23, 2019

The United States is the world’s first attempt at a mass-level diverse democracy. That’s one of the reasons we call this “the American experiment” -- because not only was such a thing never tried before, people considered it impossible.

Our job is to make it better. How do we build a better diverse democracy in what is the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world, in a country soon to be majority minority?

Let’s first understand that diversity -- despite what gets taught in elementary school -- is not always unicorns and rainbows.

Here is what diversity looks like in the city of Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. If you work for the fire department in the Croat Catholic part of town, you don’t respond to burning buildings in the Bosnian Muslim part of town, even if you are closer. If you are Catholic, you go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. If you are Muslim, you study in those same buildings starting at 2 p.m. Catholics go to a nightclub called Pink Panther; Muslims go to a nightclub called Art. There are two soccer teams, two garbage collection companies, two hospitals -- divided along ethno-religious groups.

Diversity in the town of Willmar, Minn., looks very different. There’s a big, beautiful world map in the front lobby of the high school with pins marking the national backgrounds of the student body. Over 30 nations are represented. The Community Integration Center, started by Somali immigrants, holds English language and American culture classes in the morning, and Somali language and culture classes in the afternoons. Fifty local business donated $1,000 each to start an entrepreneurship program for young people. Every participant develops and pitches a business plan. The best ones get funded. An insurance company supports a Good Ideas program where Willmar citizens hold dinners in their homes and faith communities (traditional meals are provided by the hosts) to discuss ways to strengthen and improve Willmar. It’s no surprise to me that the highest-ranking Somali state official in Minnesota, Hamse Warfa, is from Willmar.

As in all cases, there is a complicated backdrop: the lingering legacy of the war in the '90s in the Balkans, the different political arrangements in the two nations. But let’s focus for a moment on the significance of the civic leaders, because all of these things that are separated in Mostar -- the schools, the soccer leagues, the nightclubs, the cafés, the fire departments, the businesses, the house parties -- are principally civic spaces, led by people who are civic leaders. In Mostar the civic leaders have created a city in which different religious and ethnic groups live side by side in separate pots.

The civic leaders of Willmar are looking to achieve pluralism -- a town that respects its diverse identities, nurtures positive relationships between different communities and fosters a sense of the common good. It was a civic leader -- the high school principal, Paul Schmitz -- who decided to put that big, beautiful map of the world in the lobby. It was civic leaders who started the Community Integration Center.

Here is how I define the civic: spaces where people from different backgrounds come together in shared activities that promote the general well-being and that guide cooperative relationships. Little League baseball, community theaters, volunteer programs, schools, health clinics -- these are the things that make up “the civic.” Civic institutions don’t fall from the sky or rise from the ground -- people build them. Leaders build them.

Tom Friedman, who wrote the New York Times piece about Willmar, calls it a successful American melting pot. I don’t think that’s the right metaphor -- and I think the metaphor matters here. Willmar strikes me as something a lot better than a melting pot -- it reminds me of a potluck supper. And I think a potluck supper -- everybody bringing a contribution, the whole much greater (and tastier) than the individual parts -- is about the best symbol there is for a diverse democracy.


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