Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cultural difference a powerful source of opportunity

Walking in fresh December snow in the Caledon woods just north of Toronto on a Sunday afternoon with two Kaospilots friends, Peter Macleod and Pär Hultgren, we talked at length about KaosPilots and internationalization. Crunching past frozen ponds, exploring rock crevices and watching hawks, we mused about a core question: what made KaosPilots special in its first 15 years and what will make it fresh in its next iteration? In Christer’s words, if KaosPilots was the answer to the unemployment of the nineties, then what question do we answer today?

Kaospilots’ world view paper identifies 3 major areas of global challenge which will focus KaosPilots’ development: sustainability, cultural diversity and social innovation. With our aim “to be the best school for the world”, these challenging areas will have a serious impact on the educational process and curriculum, consultancy work and our personal interactions. They will also affect how we proceed with internationalization.

As the international board member from Toronto, Canada which is considered to be a living laboratory for cultural diversity, I wanted to offer some reflections on the topic of cultural diversity and KaosPilots’s internationalization strategy. Of course Toronto is not the only city where numerous cultures live together; but from my perch, there is something about how it is happening in Toronto which is recognized as more accelerated, more layered, more nuanced, oftentimes more successful and therefore worth unpacking in the KaosPilots context.

For many, the term “cultural diversity” is almost a cliché now, a politically correct way to avoid dealing with a complex and foundational matter. This means we must be very careful to understand what we mean by cultural diversity in relation to KaosPilots, especially because we each have our own experiences of it as an international group and we have important related aspirations for KaosPilots to describe and pursue.

At the October board meeting and party, I had several discussions with people who were curious about cultural diversity in Toronto. Two themes emerged which reveal how different our experiences of cultural diversity are. People would say “but you have a Chinatown in Toronto”, meaning that it was a ghetto and therefore not a good model of cultural diversity; and my response would be “yes, but we also have Little India, Little Italy, and Little Korea and everyone goes there, lives there, sends their kids to school together”. The second theme was hearing people link “diversity” with “problems” whereas we link “diversity” with “opportunity and excellence”. This is not to say that Toronto does not have problems related to diversity (far from it!), but rather to indicate an approach and an attitude which affect our personal and systemic responses to social integration, an approach and an attitude which we can influence and shape.
With the notable exception of the history of the aboriginal and Innu people, modern Canada is a very new country and Toronto is a young city. For the past few hundred years, people from around the world have migrated to Canada, seeking refuge from war, famine, economic devastation or persecution of all kinds. Canadians are not linked through blood relations but through the experiences of migration and refuge. This is different from most of the world’s populations. Currently, about half of the new immigrants to Canada settle around Toronto. With a population of 2.7 million people from 169 countries, Toronto is home to virtually all of the world's culture groups and more than 100 languages and dialects are spoken. Diversity of race, religion and lifestyle help define and set Toronto apart from other world cities. The city’s motto is “Diversity Our Strength”.
My family has been here for two hundred years and I have always lived in Toronto, but in Toronto, this makes me unusual. In my lifetime, Toronto has evolved so quickly that I have gone from being a member of the dominant race and class to being a minority. Almost three-quarters of Torontonians aged 15 or older have direct ties to immigration. About one-half (52%) are themselves immigrants while another 22% are 2nd generation immigrants with at least one parent born outside of Canada. The remaining 26% of the Toronto population (aged 15 or older) is comprised of individuals who were born in Canada to two Canadian-born parents.

I think the following two stories can give a glimpse of the wondrously evolved state of cultural diversity in Toronto and Canada better than facts and figures. The first is from Raj Beri, a self-described displaced Torontonian living in Los Angeles, who wrote about his hockey-loving mother in an article in the January 26, 2004 edition of Maclean’s magazine.
“Only in Canada could my traditional Indian mom, born in a hill station in Punjab, who spent nearly half her life not knowing what a hockey puck was, be standing up, yelling at the TV while Tie Domi [NHL hockey star] beats the stuffing out of some hapless rookie, or be concerned with such important matters as who the [Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team] will get to shore up their blue line before the trading deadline. This, I say, is cultural adaptation at its best and most bizarre.”
The second story will perhaps be of particular interest to Danes in the wake of the furor over the cartoons of Mohammed published in Denmark a year ago or to Swedes in Malmo who are engaging with a growing Muslim community . A new television comedy is being produced by CBC, Canada’s national public radio and television broadcaster, for release in January 2007. Titled “Little Mosque on the Prairie” (a hilarious reference to Little House on the Prairie, the popular book by Laura Ingalls Wilder that became a highly successful television series with a global following), it will explore the life of a small Muslim community living with the other residents in a small prairie town in western Canada. The show is written and produced by Zarqa Nawaz, a Canadian filmmaker whose films BBQ Muslims (a five-minute comedy about two brothers who are suspected of being terrorists after their barbecue blows up, shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1996) and Real Terrorists Don't Belly Dance. The first sitcom in the world to be set in a mosque, “Little Mosque on the Prairie” will look at universal themes of faith and community, showing a broad representation of secular and religious people in Muslim society, not just the extremes of the terrorist and the repressed woman.

Of the many things to consider about cultural diversity, what is noteworthy in these stories, apart from their ability to use humour to portray diversity, is the fundamental importance of the integration of cultures, rather than ghettoization or assimilation. Fear of difference is one of the biggest problems in the world today. The only way to overcome this fear is to engage with difference, to embrace it, to risk being offensive sometimes in order to understand it, rather than hiding behind political correctness or simply tolerance. I believe that this is what Toronto is doing so well with respect to cultural diversity – creating a place where cultural differences are seen as powerful sources of possibility, opportunity and excellence.

Coincident with the lived experience of the evolution of cultural diversity, the current debates about cultural diversity are endlessly fascinating, complex and momentous. For example, Tony Blair has said that anyone coming to Britain has a right to be different and a duty to integrate. Canadians are being asked if religious and cultural norms of immigrants must give way to Canadian values. A recent book by an American professor, Walter Benn Michaels, captures the central problem of the loss of focus on economic inequality in its title: The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

I have a big hope that KaosPilots will find Toronto to be a vital place/base from which to experience and explore one of the most sophisticated examples of cultural diversity in the world. With its rich, constantly changing mix of cultures, Toronto is always evolving at an accelerated rate. This social evolution is not controllable or predictable. It begs to be fused with KaosPilots’ deep curiosity, talent for social innovation and fearlessness about taking risks. We have so much to experience and understand about this critical issue, with Kaospilots and for the world. Let’s go!

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