James E. Canales
President and CEO
California's ethnic diversity is a source of great strength: It enriches our cultural and intellectual life, stimulates our creativity, fuels our ability to innovate, and positions us to compete successfully in a global economy. But such diversity also represents an enormous challenge, and a provocative new report by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam suggests just how difficult a challenge we face.
In his study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, Putnam found that the greater the diversity in a community, the more people tend to withdraw from collective life to volunteer less, give less to charity, register to vote less, have less confidence in local government and local leaders, and even have fewer close friends.
By almost every measure of civic health, diverse communities scored lower, according to Putnam's survey, which was based on interviews with nearly 30,000 people in 41 cities and towns across the country, including 3,800 Californians, drawn from San Diego, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Oakland and San Francisco. (Read Putnam's article here.)
"Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie and social isolation," wrote Putnam, a renowned political scientist known for his best selling book, Bowling Alone. "In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to 'hunker down' that is, to pull in like a turtle."
What are we to make of these findings, especially in California? Moreover, what are the implications for the Irvine Foundation and the important work of our grantee partners? After all, as a private foundation focused on expanding opportunity for all Californians, much of our grantmaking is aimed at building understanding across ethnic lines and engaging a broad cross section of Californians in the civic and cultural life of their communities.
We should begin by acknowledging that Putnam's conclusions are unsettling, but we should be careful not to overreact. Its no surprise that diversity makes people uncomfortable. Nor is it new that this discomfort can breed intolerance and distrust among people of different ethnic backgrounds. What is important about Putnam's study is the finding that this discomfort can also breed distrust of civic institutions and a withdrawal from community life.
Putnam himself views the findings as neither cause for despair nor an argument against diversity. In the long run, history shows, our perceptions about social divisions change, and seemingly intractable divisions give way, over time, to a larger, more inclusive identity. As examples of this, Putnam cites the successful assimilation of diverse groups within the U.S. Army, evangelical megachurches and most important, following the early 20th century wave of U.S. immigration. Moreover, Putnam points out, diversity has important cultural, economic and developmental benefits.
In the short run, however, we are faced with the challenge of creating a sense of shared civic purpose that also respects ethnic identities. It is vital and necessary that we meet that challenge. In order to do so, we need to better understand the conditions that lead to withdrawal in diverse communities, and identify what strategies work best to draw people into more active participation with the civic life of their communities.
If anything, Putnam's findings underscore the importance of the work that Irvine's grantee partners are doing, whether it is exploring how the arts can foster greater cross-cultural understanding, helping immigrants to acculturate and succeed in school by improving their English-language skills, or promoting greater civic involvement among immigrant communities in the Central Valley and Inland Empire.
In this fall issue of Irvine Quarterly, you will read about some of this work. As part of our California Votes Initiative, for example, our grantees are working to improve voter participation in diverse, low-income communities. An interim evaluation report, just released, explored which strategies worked best to engage infrequent voters. The findings are discussed in the article and included in a new report on our Web site.
California's long-term future depends on its ability to engage diverse populations in the state's governance, educational system and economy. The Irvine Foundation remains committed to doing its part, in concert with others, to ensure we seize the opportunities represented by our rich diversity. Californians deserve no less.
James E. Canales
President and CEO