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Making VolunteersCivic Life after Welfare's End$

Nina Eliasoph

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780691147093

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691147093.001.0001

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(p.181) Part Three Celebrating Our Diverse, Multicultural Community

(p.181) Part Three Celebrating Our Diverse, Multicultural Community

Making Volunteers

Nina Eliasoph

Princeton University Press

An elected county official visited the county-funded Regional YEP. She exclaimed to me, while standing on the sidelines of a meeting: “What I really like about the Regional YEP is the diversity!”

I agree, nodding and smiling with genuine enthusiasm, but not wanting to talk loudly while the meeting is going on.

She continues, “It’s diverse, not only by Snowy Prairie versus suburban communities, but also ethnically diverse! Just look around!”

If this were not available for her to say, what would there be to say? “I like it because it does a lot?” But it doesn’t—they haven’t done anything yet this year [since September, when the school year started, and it was now December]. Would she say, “I like it because there are a lot of kids?” But there aren’t. What does this language do?

The Regional Youth Engagement Project’s racial diversity was one of its crowning achievements—every visiting government administrator or NGO officer I met at a meeting remarked upon it favorably, and it was always very important in public events for visibly diverse youth to represent the youth programs, so that the audience could quickly see the group’s diversity. The youth workers needed a working, practical definition of “diversity,” to know what to appreciate, what to correct, and what to ignore.

“Culture” and “diversity” are used so often in the United States, they seem to mean everything and nothing. To understand what the mantra “celebrating our diverse, multicultural community” means, we have to hear what the phrase does, in action: precisely at what moments do people use these words? In reference to what people or activities?

Just to be clear at the outset: “celebrating cultural diversity” in Snowy Prairie did not require learning about any specific cultures. Learning about a culture would be too time-consuming. It might require learning history, customs, and manners, perhaps a set of prayers or a language for saying them. A culture is often too upsetting to be happily “celebrated.” People sometimes want to embrace parts of their culture and shed the (p.182) rest. Furthermore, making distinctions between categories of people was taboo, but necessary in organizations that needed to promote diversity—people needed to know which differences to count as contributing to diversity. They had to know not to respond to a question about whether a group was “diverse” by saying, as my eleven-year-old said when I asked him about his funk band, “yes, because it had a saxophone player, a clarinet, and a flute.”

According to Rob Strauss, the well-read director of the county Youth Department, dreary bureaucrats of the past almost crushed America’s colorful diversity, when they tried to make Italian immigrants eat Anglo-American food—beef and beans.1 Haunted by America’s near loss of garlic, today’s Empowerment Projects demanded cultural diversity, but it had to be easy to see, taste, and hear, quickly, so it could be put on display to the multiple, distant, hurried audiences.

Since celebrating our diverse multicultural community could not mean highlighting and learning about deep, important differences, the question for this section will not be “what is multicultural diversity?” but “what did the act of naming something ‘multicultural’ or ‘diverse’ accomplish in these Empowerment Projects?”


(1.) This worry has been almost as much of a constant in the United States as has been the fear of bureaucracy. For almost a century, schools have taught folk music of many lands (Olneck 1990). Like the potent symbol of “the volunteer” and the bureaucrat, the ideal of diversity transforms over American history.