Don't you just hate it when you get called out for living in your own little world? Especially when it's the President doing the reminding!
I've only recently come down from the high of being in a football stadium with 85,000 others listening to President Obama's University of Michigan commencement speech. And darned if he didn't speak directly to me with this line: "If you're someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile." Of course, his suggestions went in both political directions. He also said that he hoped Glenn Beck viewers might try reading a few articles in the HuffingtonPost.
The message I took away from that experience, and that I continue to get through my academic research, is this: If things are going OK in your life, and you've always lived and worked with those of similar race and backgrounds, for instance, you are prone to missing the bigger picture.
Whether we like to admit it or not, as the privileged citizens many of us are, we choose where we live and how our on- and off-line social communities are built. It's easy to think that racism, age-ism or sexism doesn't have much to do with our own lives. But not engaging with the idea of the other can lead to long-term misunderstandings and crossed human connections.
Consider the systemic premise of sustainability. All things are interconnected systems. All decisions affect other decisions. What you do today actually does affect the lives of people you will never know generations from now. Oh, yeah...
Operating only in our small personal and business worlds hinders a truly holistic perspective and stunts our own growth as productive citizens. My own professional challenge is a good example. I study and interpret how consumers engage with sustainability. What draws them in, how will they stay interested in sustainability?
But am I only looking through my more privileged eyes, or can I see through those of a lower income population? There's a BIG difference. Are people "consumers," or are they "citizens?" Words do matter. Do they listen to public radio and read The New York Times, or do they watch Glenn Beck and not have much time for newspaper reading at all? As the President noted, differences in tone and language can very much shade a person's view.
As a longtime marketing professional, I now realize just how clouded my lens on the world has gotten. The world is not made exclusively of affluent people -- or of high school dropouts. The people we all interact with on a daily basis are far from a homogeneous mass. To start, they are men and women, young and old, and racially, economically and politically diverse.
My new lens-clearing solution will be intention. Now that my awareness is raised, I'm going to more carefully examine the assumptions I make in my daily interactions. Imagine how much more productive my efforts in sustainability will be when I can actually see the whole system?
This article originally aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.
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