By Tino Mantella
TLG President & CEO
The Dictionary defines the word Homogeneity as “the quality or state of being all the same or all of the same kind”. Homogeneity often can lead to ignorance. That’s my personal perspective. Allow me to put a fine point on my hypothesis in the paragraphs below.
I grew up in the small town of Homer, New York. In 2021, its population stood at just north of 3,000. Our high school was nearly 100% Caucasian. Was I imagining that? To validate, I researched the most recent data. Findings – nearly 92% of the village of Homer is white and 7% is Asian. Less than 2% is Black or Hispanic.
No community is homogeneous though. When you grow up in a town like Homer, we find other ways to classify people in diversity buckets. During my days in Homer, it was farmers, hippies, jocks, and so on. My two grandfathers were born in Italy. I felt discrimination all the way through high school. Jokes and name calling were the extent of it, and I don’t put myself anywhere near the discrimination that has surrounded America since its founding.
Before moving on from this theme, I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with Homer. Furthermore, the people that never moved from Homer can be as worldly as any enlightened human. However, I am sure most of you reading this will concur that if a person doesn’t get a chance to touch and feel the diversity in our world, they stand less of a chance of thinking and acting differently.
Diversity in Experience
My parents are my heroes. We had a very close and loving family, but they did encourage us to get a bit uncomfortable by leaving our town to explore and learn. My post high school journey started with a one-year post-grad experience at a military academy. My goal was to get an extra year of football before college and to raise my grades. The school was more diverse than my high school population. Manlius Military Academy was an all-male school with students coming from around the country. The experience there began to open my eyes and mind to the differences and similarities exhibited by my classmates. The discipline was great too. We had to be at our desk for two hours a night studying with no distractions. Here is where I learned that I could learn if I concentrated, and being at a military school, we had a lot of time to concentrate.
After Manlius, I attended Temple University. Temple is in the heart of inner-city Philadelphia. My mom cried when she and my dad dropped me off because I was staying in an old frat house on Diamond Street, which was a rough part of the city, to say the least. I loved my experience at Temple. The diversity of the people that attended the school was eye opening. It changed me and my life/career path. In addition to being a D1 athlete, I had a side job at Carson Valley School, which was a home for neglected children. Again, I was blessed with the opportunity to broaden my horizons.
My job experiences have enabled me to continue to grow as a person. For example, being the CEO of the Chicago YMCA was a place where I could continue to give back while riding another steep learning curve. The Chicago Y was the most diverse YMCA in the entire country. We were a leader in foster care, infant mortality prevention, senior services for the underserved, gang intervention, and single room occupancy housing. And, we did have the usual offerings like fitness centers, childcare centers, and sleepaway camps.
Be More Out There
What’s the moral of my story? First and foremost, even though my parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college or move out of their town until their 80s, they had the wisdom to kick their four children out of the nest. They gave us an opportunity to grow as humans. With growth came understanding and compassion for the diverse people that surrounded us.
Most of us will be ignorant of the world that extends beyond our reach. We often feed off each other’s biases while listening to the same people, watching the same TV channels, and attending the same functions. We don’t want to hear from the other side, whatever that side may be. Our country is polarized for many reasons. One reason is that there are not enough opportunities and/or people taking opportunities to be uncomfortable… to be more out there.
My final thought is that some of you may have kids that are going on to college or other pursuits. Despite the cost and the sadness that might take place with the distance between you and them, I would implore you to encourage them to spread their wings. Now, I am not talking about a one-month junket to Europe, although that’s not all that bad. I am talking about getting them out there. Maybe they could go on a mission trip. Could they participate in a Habitat for Humanity build project? Is there a summer job that stretches their thinking? Diversity is a wonderful thing and we all just need to avail ourselves of opportunities that expose us to the beauty of our uniqueness and differences.