One of the hot-button topics in society in general and Rotary clubs, in particular, is the concept of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Rotary International has adopted DEI as a core value.
The only problem is that almost everyone has a different idea of what DEI means.
Diversity has always been a core value of Rotary. It is in our DNA. For years we expressed that through our classification system. When I joined Rotary in the 1970’s in a small club in northern rural Canada, our club had, out of an average membership of 25 people, a Muslim, a Hindu, a person of Caribbean African descent, at least one member who was as openly gay as you could be in rural northern Canada in the 1970’s. None of that was by design. That was just who the local college instructor, high school principal, veterinarian and dentist happened to be.
Rotary International has had presidents from every continent (except Antarctica), of diverse religions and now, finally, without regard to gender. We are comfortable with diversity. There is no restriction on being a Rotarian other than you must be an adult of good moral character.
We are getting better at equity also. Clubs are paying attention to barriers to membership. They are choosing meeting places that are more accessible. They are forming satellite clubs with lower costs. They are bringing in members in groups so they can share the experience and support one another.
Surprisingly, the largest challenge is inclusivity.
Rotary is a membership organization. We depend on having members to achieve our service goals. We depend on having members to fund our projects and the Rotary Foundation. We depend on members to make other members feel welcome and accepted.
Former members have been polled to discover the reasons that they leave Rotary. Once you discard those who leave because of external factors (relocation, health, family matters) the two most common factors are “unmet expectations” and “club culture”. In other words, they did not feel included, either in the work of the club or in the social aspects of the club.
Rotary is a non-political, non-religious organization, but individual Rotarians are often both. In many clubs, you will find that equally dedicated and effective Rotarians have completely contrary political views, or they are devout followers of different faiths. The joy of Rotary is that those members can work closely to achieve the same Rotary goals, they can share the joy of Rotary fellowship and they can even be good friends. They do not have to change their views or beliefs.
DEI in Rotary comes from a desire to make Rotary more open, and to allow groups of people who might not have become Rotarians in the past to see Rotary membership as a viable option. It is not a call to get rid of or “re-educate” existing Rotarians. It is a call for existing members to be open to and welcome new initiatives and concepts. The ability of all Rotarians to participate and be valued is integral to being a Rotarian.
To quote Dr. Martin Luther King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness.” Rotary does not become younger by getting rid of old Rotarians. It gets younger by making Rotary more accessible and relevant to younger persons. Rotary does not become more diverse, by any measure, by making Rotarians more uncomfortable. It becomes more diverse by giving the opportunity to membership to a wider group- and being warm, welcoming, accommodating and enjoyable to be around.
In this age of social media firestorms, extreme political partisanship and religious intolerance, Rotary is one of the few refuges where people of differing views can work together for the common good. We can discuss our differences or deal with difficult subjects without disparaging each other. Rotarians do not cancel or shun other Rotarians because they see the world through different lenses. We find common ground. As Rotarians, we are peace builders, not warriors.
Inclusivity is our superpower. Let’s use if for the betterment of the world.