When traveling, I am often greeted with a common conversation starter: “Where are you visiting from?”
In some cities, strangers often look at me with some combination of sympathy and confusion when I share that my heart and home are in Tulsa.Their responses generally include a patronizing apology and disdain for a state they call intolerant and overly conservative. But I know Tulsa, and I always find myself repeating the same sales pitch, defending my hometown by listing the national retail chains with a presence here, discussing our thriving arts and culture scene and championing the fact that we do indeed have diversity, however unlikely it might seem to them.
This is not to say that Oklahoma has been perfect in its diversity and inclusion efforts. Some of our public policies have earned us a reputation as being pretty unwelcoming. We’ve led the charge in anti-immigrant legislation. We were among the first states to ban same-sex marriage. We voted to make English our official language, eliminated equal opportunity and became, yet again, a late-night television punch line when we banned Sharia law without any evidence of its use. Is there harm to the national perception that we are not inclusive? What is the negative effect?
“Policies like these combine to send a message that Oklahoma fears, rather than embraces, diversity – a message that bears out when you look at our outcomes: We incarcerate people at the highest rates in the world, rank alarmingly high in poverty rates (especially among children) and have been rated the third worst state for women,” says Mana Tahaie, director of Mission Impact and co-director of the Inclusion Institute for YWCA Tulsa.
Personally, I will admit that my goal throughout high school and university was to move out of state to what some people might say is a more inclusive community. Growing up in a suburb where my last name and brown skin stuck out like a sore thumb and where I was bullied over my sexual orientation, I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t part of the majority.
But unlike other generations, Millennials have a deeper appreciation for diversity. They have grown up with an entire world at their fingertips. For the most part, young people have a better knowledge and awareness of the world as a result of the Internet, social media and having access to 24-hour world news. We are seeing distinct social and digital changes, and America is confronted with a generation more diverse than any before- almost 40 percent in the minority by race alone.
Inclusion — promoting a welcoming environment to all people, regardless of race, religious belief, sexual orientation and other characteristics — is important to us. We see the beauty in unique characteristics. We appreciate variety in the arts. We desire equal rights for everyone. We know life isn’t fair, but we’re striving to create an inclusive environment that is as fair as we can make it.
A January 2010 Pew Research Center Study revealed that 67 percent of Millennials agreed that increasing diversity was a good thing. When Millennials look across the nation for communities in which to attend school, find a new job or start a business, they look for ones that champion inclusion, and it should come as no surprise that the communities that do so have a better ability to retain and attract young talent.
Despite the mistaken reputation that others have of Oklahoma, we are doing great work in our community to combat our region’s negative perception when it comes to inclusion.
As Tahaie explains, “but this picture, dire as it is, obscures the very real work being done to make Oklahoma a more inclusive place. Led by community visionaries like TYPros, Williams, Schusterman Foundation, Xposure and Mosiac, as well as community organizations like ours (YWCA Tulsa), there are incredible strides being made to build a community that reflects, welcomes — and most importantly, engages — the entirety of the richly-diverse population of our state. These leaders want to align our policies, practices and culture with Oklahoma’s core values of hospitality, friendliness and open-heartedness. As a life-long Okie, I see change happening and I’ve been encouraged enough to stay.”
And I’ve been encouraged enough to stay, too.
We’ve had some really big wins lately. Most recently, U.S. District Judge Terence C. Kern declared Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage a fundamental violation of equal rights. Although many more steps are needed for LGBTQ Oklahomans to win the fight on marriage equality, these types of efforts are critical in sending a signal nationally that everyone is indeed welcomed in Oklahoma.
As a generation, we need to know that not only Tulsa, but our entire state, will make a commitment to diversity. We need to know that we will continue improving inclusion through advocacy, awareness and community programs. We as a generation place high importance on diversity and we will fight for it. If you are considering Tulsa for your new home or are a young person wanting to leave, I invite you to join the many organizations and community leaders that are aligned in making inclusion a priority for our region. Their growing movement will give you plenty of material for refuting Tulsa’s negative stereotypes— and may even elicit some envy.
Isaac Rocha is the 2014 Chair of Tulsa’s Young Professionals, an organization created to attract and retain Tulsa’s brightest young talent, the region’s next generation of leaders. Isaac writes about current issues affecting young professionals, challenges facing the TYPros mission and other musings from a Tulsa YP. For more information about TYPros visit www.typros.org.