The Edge Effect: Diversity in Systems

The necessity of a permaculture office

“Knee-high by the Fourth of July!” my dad would holler about the corn this time of year. Dad was a wannabe farmer. Although he kept a large backyard garden, it wasn’t until I was through college that I got to know a real farmer, Pat.

Pat was a ruddy-faced Irishman who drove “green” (John Deere), wore a Pioneer seed corn cap everywhere except church, and ran point on his family’s Century Farm.

I dated Pat’s daughter and spent a lot of time with him, bouncing down dirt roads in his Dodge diesel—moving cattle, burning fields, shoveling corn.

I learned that Pat hated trees. And shrubs. And rocks. And steep grades. And low areas where water could collect. They were a nuisance to commercial-grade combines and pickers. They muddied up the straight-and-even-rowed world of industrial ag in which Pat lived.

Pat would faint if he spent time on one of our region’s organic farms. Organic farmers don’t fuss much over straight rows. Or low areas. They don’t mind trees. They cultivate their hedgerows and brag about their ponds. They welcome certain insects. I once asked an organic farmer about his dandelions, referring to them as “weeds.” He scolded, “If you think anything on my farm is a weed, you need to change your definition!”

Organic farmers don’t need herbicides, pesticides or genetically altered seeds—the tricks of Pat’s trade—as long as they have rampant, abundant natural diversity. And the edges are key.

In his book Permaculture: A Designers Manual, Bill Mollison writes that transition zones —the places where field and water, row and hedgerow meet—have greater biodiversity than the middle. And the greater the biodiversity, the more resistant plants are to disease. And the heartier the plants, the greater their yield.

I see the natural laws of permaculture working in human ecosystems, too. The more diverse the human system—whether the workplace or civic boardroom— the more sustainable and productive it can be. Every Fortune 500 company knows this, and watches its diversity metrics closely. Black
Americans spend one trillion dollars annually. Gay men and women spend $800 billion. And at $1.2 trillion annually, the Hispanic consumer market is larger than the economies of all but thirteen countries.

Smart companies know they have to build diverse teams to reach diverse markets. They have to build edges and hedgerows where diversity can thrive.

What about Madison?

Like the rest of the country, our nonwhite population is growing. In Wisconsin and twenty-six other states, Hispanics are our fastest-growing group. And for many white Madisonians—even the aging hippies who marched for civil rights—this is a trend they’re not quite sure what to do with.

My advice? Lean in. Bone up. Raise your cultural literacy.

In May, the beloved Kwame Salter, former senior VP at Kraft Foods, returned to Madison to keynote at the Urban League of Greater Madison’s Workforce Diversity & Leadership Summit. He left the business audience with three takeaways:

1. Appreciate the value of different perspectives. (In other words, don’t grow a monoculture; nurture a permaculture.)

2. Treat all people as equally diverse.

3. Hire managers with high emotional quotients: those who are self-aware and have self-control, who seek first to understand, and have organizational courage.

The time is now. Eighty-three percent of America’s population growth between 2000 and 2010 came from nonwhites. So it’s the right moment in Madison to embrace our human “biodiversity” and see it for what it is—a source of our region’s sustainability and productivity.

And mark your calendars for November 16, when the Madison Area Diversity Roundtable hosts its annual summit. At MADR, no matter what race or creed you are, you will find a safe place to ask questions, extend your thinking, and sharpen your perspective about the sustainability and prosperity benefits of diversity—at work and in our communities.

But don’t expect the best ideas to come from the mainstream middle. The best ideas—the greatest diversity—are at the edges.

Rebecca Ryan is founder of Next Generation Consulting. Her new book, ReGENERATION, hits the bookshelves this year. 

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