On April 24, the Colorado Springs City Council voted unanimously to sponsor a 2007 Multi-Cultural Fair. This vote, to waive park fees and related costs, was a dramatic shift from their earlier position when Council members expressed reticence to support the fair because of their concern about gay and lesbian participation. Since no council member spoke in opposition to this concern, sponsorship seemed doomed. Yet the unanimous vote of support took place just two weeks later in a council chambers filled to standing-room-only with residents who supported the fair and its organizers, the Colorado Springs Diversity Forum.
The story was followed by local and state media. It quickly landed on front pages in Colorado Springs and in publications as far away as London. The fair is planned for August, but the news promises to travel well beyond that date.
Why is this news? Why would something as seemingly non-controversial as a family-oriented, Multi-Cultural Fair, celebrating differences with food, art, music and dance stir such passion — and media interest — in this community of more than half a million?
Colorado Springs has a history of diversity-related challenges that date back a while. Passion and interest stem from this history, but Colorado Springs might be a bellwether for cities and towns across the United States. Colorado Springs is changing. This small step toward celebrating differences might represent a leap in thinking about how we all do business.
Festival organizer, the Colorado Springs Diversity Forum, came together to encourage this leap by creating opportunity for residents to appreciate the rich diversity in our community. Initiated by a small group of civic and business leaders and joined by many others since (see members at www.cospdiversityforum.com), the forum’s work is based on 20 years of research as well as first-hand experience: good diversity practices are good for business. Diversity is essential to the economic vitality and future of our community.
City Council’s action also speaks to something that needs more attention: inclusive thinking is not new here. When council spoke with one voice to support this celebration of many cultures, it affirmed Gen. William J. Palmer’s founding vision. Palmer was an enormously successful railroad baron who promoted openness and exchange across cultural lines both as a way of doing business and as a way of life. Council also acted in the grand tradition of Springs legend and businesswoman Fannie Mae Duncan. Duncan’s success can be traced equally to the regular appearance of jazz and blues greats on her stage and to the permanent sign in her nightclub window: Everybody Welcome. In Duncan’s business practices, fair organizers found inspiration for the event name, Everybody Welcome: A Celebration of Culture and Diversity.
Duncan’s nightclub and restaurant, The Cotton Club, was a downtown landmark during the ’1950s, ’60s and ’70s. You could count on a regular line-up of top musicians like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and many others. Through segregation and civil rights eras, long before terms like “diversity” and “inclusion” made their way into business terminology, you could always count on Duncan’s open door for all.
I remember being at The Cotton Club in college. Richard Skorman’s roommate, Mark, played with the club’s house band. Those were tumultuous times. We were in an unpopular war with a draft that drew largely from the poor and the poor were often people then called “racial minorities.” Civilians hadn’t learned the difference between those who fought the war and those who made the war. Soldiers weren’t appreciated for their sacrifice and weren’t prepared for their return to the states. At that time, no one knew what to call the post-traumatic stress that ran rampant in the ranks of those who made it back.
At that time, some questioned the risk to get to The Cotton Club, but there was never a question of risk once in the door. Black, white, young, old, rich, poor, soldier, civilian — we were all welcome under Fannie Mae’s roof. She greeted us personally and watched out for us all. Though we didn’t call it that then, her establishment was a model for full inclusion as a successful business strategy. The Cotton Club was a great place to eat, dance, be entertained, listen to great music and create community across many divides.
Everybody Welcome: A Celebration of Culture and Diversity draws on the example set by Fannie Mae Duncan for Colorado Springs. It’s a new occasion to eat, dance, be entertained, make music, enjoy art and create community together. Everybody Welcome will showcase the positive influence of many diverse cultures that make up the social fabric of our city. This event offers us a chance to replace front page controversies with more complete stories of our community’s positive heritage and priorities.
The Diversity Forum invites you to invest in the economic health and long-term future of our community by participating in Everybody Welcome: A Celebration of Culture and Diversity. Join the forum. Sponsor the celebration. Volunteer. Perform, exhibit or host a booth. Most of all, talk it up and then come join us on Aug. 18, downtown. Because the success of Everybody Welcome: A Celebration of Culture and Diversity rests on — everybody.
Jody Alyn is a member of the Diversity Forum Steering Committee and president of Jody Alyn Consulting. Parts of this article first appeared in Be The Change: A Newsletter for Diversity Leaders (Spring 2007) www.alynconsulting.com/resources/newsletter/JACSpring2007Newsletter.html.and are reprinted with permission.