A few months ago, Leadership Memphis concentrated on a provocative question, “What Makes a Great City?” and it heard from a highly informative panel of five local leaders, from a noted national urban observer, and from Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, named as one of Time’s five best mayors in the U.S.
Opinions were personal, impassioned and always illuminating. The question was answered with examples of great cities, lists of cities’ unique assets and the fundamental essence of greatness. One of the threads that held all of the answers together was this – the richness found in ethnic diversity.
Whether panelists were talking about Indian neighborhoods in New York or Japanese neighborhoods in San Francisco or African-American neighborhoods in Atlanta, there was a consensus that the variety of ethnic experiences that can be engaged in a city is one of its most potent forces for greatness.
It is just common sense these days that multi-cultural diversity is a competitive advantage in a world economy characterized by its mind-boggling diversity. Whether calling the Dell computer help desk and talking to a technician in India, calling customer service for a New York City company and talking to someone in England, or eating in the FedEx World Headquarters cafeteria which harkens to the United Nations food court, it is increasingly clear that diversity is a fact of life in today’s marketplace.
It is equally clear that sometimes, Memphis actually runs from the diversity that has the potential to be a distinctive strength. Rather than tell the world that we are a minority majority city, our economic development strategies skirt away from our African-American majority.
We continue to do so at our peril, because instead, we need to embrace our diversity and tell the world that if they want to compete in a diverse world economy, there is no better place from which to do it than Memphis, because we were diverse before diverse was cool.
And while diversity in Memphis is normally defined in terms of white and black, it’s time to expand the circle.
That’s because in the Memphis region, the number of different languages being spoken is 55. Let’s say it again. When families gather in their own homes tonight, there are 55 different languages being spoken in the Memphis metro.
Who would have imagined?
The first 10 are relatively easy – English, Spanish, French, German, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Tagalong and Italian.
Then, things get more interesting. The second 10 are Russian, Hindi, Gujarathi, Japanese, Mon-Khmer, Greek, Hebrew, Persian, Urdu and Laotian.
And that’s not even half way through the list. To get there, add Telugu, Kru, Tamil, Portugese, Bengali, Cushite, Polish and Amharic.
They are followed by Mandarin, Thai, Dutch, Yiddish, Indian, Kannada, African, Hungarian, Kurdish, Serbocroatian, Cantonese and Fulani.
That brings the number to 40. By now the number of people speaking each language is only in the double digits, but still they come – Swahili, Formosan, Malayalam, Turkish, French Creole, Swedish, Marathi, Panjabi, Gullah and Norwegian.
The final five are Slovak, Croatian, Ukrainian, Patoil and Irish Gaelic.
No, Memphis is not Los Angeles, which has the highest number of languages – 137, but it’s a long way from the homogenized black and white image of Memphis that many of us carry around.
In other words, it is not accurate to continue to describe our diversity in terms of Caucasians and African-Americans. In doing so, we exclude 62,000 people of various ethnic backgrounds who deserve the chance to be part of the civic conversation and decision-making. In embracing all of these ethnic cultures and traditions, we enrich our city and contribute in a direct way to a more expansive world view that serves our city well as it addresses its problems and its opportunities.
“Many languages, one Memphis” is a theme that all of us should adopt, and as a panelist suggested today, Memphis needs to celebrate Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, and other ethnic occasions as citywide celebrations, because in doing so, we make our city more vibrant, more appealing, and yes, more fascinating.
In doing this, we also tear down the walls that separate us from ourselves. If the Hispanic community reports that it feels disenfranchised and it is our second most spoken language in Memphis, just imagine the feelings of disengagement felt by the Cambodian community.
But we need more than celebrations. We need also to connect these ethnic groups to the American Dream. One way to start is for the City of Memphis to change the language of its minority purchasing program which now says that the only group that is considered as a minority group are people with roots in Africa. It was a way to address the lack of business opportunities in the African-American community, a noble goal, but in writing the rules in this way, it fuels an “us versus them” mentality that only hurts Memphis’ future.
In defining minorities in an Africa-centric way, city government even eliminated any black Memphians from Caribbean countries, much less disregarded the needs of the array of ethnic groups that now call Memphis home.
If Memphis wants to send the message that it is ethnically and racially diverse, the first sign of a truly diverse Memphis would be to define minorities as broadly as possible to give all minority communities equal access to entrepreneurial opportunities.