GUEST COMMENTARY: Recognizing our demographic facts as assets

2013-10-27T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Recognizing our demographic facts as assetsBy William Lowe
October 27, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Diversity took root in Northwest Indiana more than 100 years ago, when immigrants of many ethnic backgrounds arrived in this region and brought their cultures and traditions. Today, our region’s character remains defined by the diversity of its people.

Northwest Indiana’s human tapestry has also resulted, too often, in residents defining themselves, and others, by their demographic differences, most often framed in terms of disparities and problems, such as unemployment, crime, poverty and lagging educational achievement. It is a way of thinking that can deepen the sense of separation among communities and groups.

Historical moments like this year’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington provide us the opportunity to reflect on where we have been and the future we want. 

As chancellor of one of Indiana’s most diverse publicly supported campuses, I believe Northwest Indiana is making strides in embracing our diversity as a regional asset that serves the interests of all of our citizens.

A good example of making our demographic facts a regional asset is found in Merrillville, which has engaged the challenges and opportunities of diversity.

In 1990, Merrillville was 87 percent white. Today, the town is 13 percent Hispanic or Latino, 40 percent white and 45 percent African American.

Likewise, during the last 16 years, Merrillville Community School Corp. has seen the number of students of color increase from about 30 to 80 percent.

Significant demographic shifts like this create challenges for communities, but these shifts can also be economic and educational opportunities.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, for example, nearly 30 percent of African Americans in Merrillville have a college degree, compared to 23 percent of whites. Hispanics and Latinos are the largest percentage of families who earn more than $100,000. And African Americans have the highest mean household earnings at $60,661.

Further, from 2011 to 2012, Merrillville students in grades 4-8 made significant improvements on ISTEP-plus tests, increasing their English language arts scores by an average of nearly 22 points, and their math scores by nearly 28 points.

Merrillville Community School Corp. is a Northwest Indiana success story that demonstrates how much can be achieved when we look beyond differences to see diversity as a strength. 

The district’s commitment to ensuring the success of all students has led to national recognition, including the high school being named the only “A” rated minority-majority high school in Indiana.

These data suggest when a community actively engages the challenges, demands and opportunities of changing demographics, the benefits of diversity that foster economic growth and an improved quality of life are realized.

The mission of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana is to transform demographic facts into assets, with community-based programming and resources that serve Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

In particular, the Urban League’s inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Awards Luncheon last March gave recognition to five local organizations that proudly embrace and integrate diversity and inclusion in their daily work and in the community.

The Urban League’s innovative efforts create a new forum for Northwest Indiana organizations to showcase their successful commitments to diversity and inclusion.

I do not doubt that, together, Northwest Indiana’s communities possess the good will, resources and vision to overcome divisions that might hinder our true regional potential. There can be greater unity and success through diversity. We are already proving it.

William Lowe is chancellor of Indiana University Northwest in Gary, co-chairman of the One Region organization, and board vice president of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana. The opinions are the writer's.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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