November 1, 2018

Diversity is Strength

Bob Sorge

Five years ago, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (now Kids Forward) published the Race to Equity report. Its revelations of racial disparity hit our proud, progressive community from out of the blue … at least it hit me that way.

At the time—and for most of the intervening years—the focus was on the gap between races in our community. How big is the gap? What contributed to it? What do we need to close it? How long will it take? How much will it cost?

There was a lot of concern that our collective attention span might shift before any real change occurred. Perhaps some well-intentioned but superficial changes might supplant genuine, deep transformation. Real change requires persistence, resources and time. And, as we have been reminded recently by the deplorable synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, progress is uneven and can slip backwards. Sometimes the drumbeat of progress itself sparks fear and people react in unpredictable and destructive ways. But the beat goes on.

Five years into our new reality, I see the momentum for positive change continuing—and growing—in Madison, setbacks notwithstanding. It seems that everywhere I turn diversity, inclusion, and equity are part of the conversation and action is being taken to evolve as a community. Not only are we addressing the gap we must bridge, but also celebrating diversity—really celebrating it in all its forms—as richness.

Urban League of Greater Madison President and CEO Ruben Anthony hosts the organization's 50th Anniversary celebration.

Diversity is strength. Leslie Orrantia, director of community relations at UW-Madison phrased it exactly that way at Downtown Madison Inc.’s (DMI) State of the Downtown briefing in September. It was the source of the unmistakable joy that filled the room throughout the night at Urban League’s 50th anniversary celebration in October. It was apparent again as I listened and learned from more than 300 of Wisconsin’s leaders of color at the recent Wisconsin Leadership Summit, hosted by Madison365 and the Ho-Chunk Nation. And it continued at the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and DMI annual dinners—all this in just the few past weeks.

However, it was a conversation that occurred this past weekend that really made me stop and think. I was with my family in Chicago, soaking in the city, when I posed the question, “You know what I love about Chicago?” Without missing a beat, my 21-year-old son simply responded, “The diversity?” Wait—what was that? He had articulated exactly what I was thinking. This had not been a subject of the weekend. It hadn’t come up once. He doesn’t live with us and hadn’t heard me rambling around the house talking to myself. We had talked about the University of Chicago, the food, the awesome art and buildings, Millennium Park, the need for pants, shoes and haircuts, where we should go on the next vacation, and why we end up watching home improvement shows when we stay at hotels. Diversity? Not a syllable. Completely independent from my own train of thought, my son came to the same conclusion. The same word. Two white guys reveling in the richness of diversity surrounding them—recognizing it as a benefit. When was the last time you saw that on the news?

The Sorge family enjoys a recent trip to Chicago.

Five years ago, we may have had a similar experience, but I don’t know whether we would have identified the same catalyst. This was simple gratitude. And when you are grateful for something you don’t want to lose it. I have always valued equity, but my understanding, appreciation, and commitment to advancing it is deeper and more profound than it was back then. I am more reflective, more willing to see and acknowledge my own privilege, and less self-conscious about my race and gender. It empowers me as part of diversity to be “a” white man instead of “the” white man.

I want to thank Erica Nelson, who led the Race to Equity project, Reverend Alex Gee, who brought it to life by sharing his own story, “Justified Anger,” in The Capital Times, and the many, many people who have not only taken a healthy look in the mirror, but have pushed for difficult conversations, measurable outcomes and real change. We are making progress in Madison.

Stay in touch with your questions, comments, or observations at