White Noise: On Norton Commons and the importance of diversity

I grew up in the suburbs. As an adult, I lived as far from the ‘burbs as possible. The separatist saga over “affordable housing” in Norton Commons intrigues me primarily because it smacks of classism, but also because I cannot imagine the desire to live in a sanitized, faux Highlands. Ew.

This coming from the woman whose international friends introduce her as the token WASP, who relishes every chance to meet people from wherever they hail and will more than likely reject you because you are too conformist than for any other reason. When I was in the Junior League here, I helped create programming, including a camp we called Tools4Life for eighth graders at Shawnee Boys & Girls Club. With members of Alpha Phi Alphas, a historic black fraternity, we ran a three-day, summer program to help at-risk youth learn life skills. State Sen. Gerald Neal, Betty Winston Baye, a former Courier-Journal columnist and Susan Barnett, then at the Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention came to talk to the kids.

We fell in love with one of the outspoken smaller kids who binged on the food we brought each night. The APhiAs played ball with the kids and put on an amazing step show and led leadership drills. We won an award for the program from the APhiAs for its 100th anniversary. I still remember the APhiA’s names with whom we ran the camp.

The resounding lesson for me was: You can’t make people like, or accept, something because you think they should, and to check my assumptions at the gym door. I learned to ask, in any community setting that aims to help a group of people, “How can I help you, what do you think you need, or what do you see as a solution?” I probably learned more than did all of the kids combined. Except for the little guy who ate so much pizza he threw up and then asked to take leftovers to his family, whom, he said, didn’t have enough food at home. He learned too much food isn’t necessarily good. I learned homogeneity isn’t either.

If you’re around only people exactly like you, what will you learn?

In his Ted Talk, “How Can We All Listen Better?” Julian Treasure, a sound expert, said we are losing our ability to listen, generally, and to each other. He said we distinguish sound and filter noise, including a technique called “differencing,” wherein we hear differences and discount sounds that remain the same. Similarly, pattern recognition allows us to respond to cues to pay attention and can initiate active listening.

I saw Norton Commons being built. There was nothing about it that made me pay attention. I know people love it and have worked hard to be there, and my hat is off to them for having “made it.” For many, I would bet they are proud of, and confident in, their choice of place and seeming status. Like Miranda tells Andy in “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Everybody wants to be us.”

Not so fast, though, Dragon Lady. Andy decides that’s not true for her. She doesn’t want to be ruthless, enviably styled and traveled. Indeed, in arguably one of the most absurd outcomes in cinema, she gives her couture wardrobe to Emily upon return to the states from Paris fashion week. At least she got a shot at Paris, though, to learn whether she wanted the life afforded to the assistant to the editor of the world’s most-renowned fashion magazine. She was, so to speak, at the table.

When New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke at Leadership Louisville’s Mayor’s lunch in August, he said one of his strategies to address how disconnected some residents feel is to hold conversations in the same place to ensure everybody is heard. “If the demographics are such that people aren’t being a part of giving,” he said they may feel “pushed into part of taking.”

Regardless of political party, Landrieu said, a belief that one has no skills for the future is the common thread for those who feel disaffected. To that end New Orleans, created the “silicon bayou,” to build a knowledge economy and attract investment.

Likewise, Mayor Greg Fischer said that  Louisville must mind the gap between the rapidly growing global economy and our ability to keep up. He wants our kids to grow up “comfortable operating in any city in the world,” he said, and that strong cities are filled with people “who don’t mind trying to find common ground.”

Could the key to finding common ground be as simple as listening to each other? Isn’t contempt prior to investigation not only bad for business, but also anathema to solution building? In a throwback to ‘70s suburbia, I offer this gem: “Somebody’s knockin’ at the door, somebody’s ringin’ the bell. Do me a favor, open the door, and let ‘em in.” •