Recently I visited Los Angeles on business. An unremarkable event in the life of a D&I professional perhaps, but this trip quickly and unexpectedly became remarkable. You see, I’m from L.A., and I hadn’t visited in seven years. A lot had changed.
I mean a LOT. I recognized the unique smell of ocean blended with exhaust, the soul sucking freeway traffic, the disorientation and excitement of hearing multiple languages being spoken. I even recognized the street names and certain landmarks once we reached downtown. But aside from those street names and landmarks, the city I knew as a teen and young adult was unrecognizable. If you had teleported me onto the street without telling me where I was, I might have guessed Atlanta or Chicago. Gone were the slew of sweatshops and rows of shops blaring loud music, hawking cheap goods to recent immigrants from Latin America. Gone was the cheap Bally’s gym where I used to work out with the working class, and the parking lot where my wannabe gangsta boyfriend and I would hop into his Buick Regal after lifting weights and grab him two Whoppers from the nearby Burger King. All this was replaced by Morton’s steakhouse, California Pizza Kitchens, packed sushi restaurants, fancy new gyms, upscale retail, Macy’s Plaza, the Ritz Carlton and a JW Marriott. Gone was skid row and the dirty, dark vacant streets where I once walked in broad daylight searching in vain for the location of an acting audition, feeling increasingly unnerved until I gave up and boarded a bus heading back to the westside. They were replaced by hustle and bustle, subway stations, cyclists, and joggers – joggers! – even at 9:00 at night! Gone were the crowds of recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America – a short, brown, polyglot crowd, children in tow. They were replaced by White, Asian, and African American professionals in stylish suits, carrying leather accessories. There was no sign anywhere the L.A. riots had ever happened.
[row][column sm=”3″]The Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles[/column][column sm=”9″]I stayed at the Westin Bonaventure, almost overwhelmed by the irony. The Bonaventure used to be the luxury hotel downtown among the bank buildings, a beautiful oasis where I and my fellow teenagers from Pasadena would go hang out after school dances. In fact, I got my first kiss from my future husband on one of those floors, and we spent our wedding night there 12 years later. It was the location of the key New Year’s Eve scene in the (then) futuristic sci-fi movie Strange Days, in 1995. Strange days indeed –now the Bonaventure, with its glass elevators, five round towers, shimmering mirror pools and classy bar looked almost … shabby. I chatted with the cute guy at registration about how long it had been since I’d been back home, and contained my horror when he told me his parents used to come down and hang out here when they were teens. His parents??[/column][/row]
[row][column sm=”9″]Installed on the 21st floor, I called my sister to tell her what I was seeing out my window, thinking maybe my memory and sense of time (per my conversation with the cute registration guy) was off. Nope, she was just as shocked. I mentioned how a colleague of mine, also an L.A. native, recently shared that the neighborhoods where I lived in my 20s – Silver Lake just off Sunset Blvd., and Highland Park on Avenue 57 – were prime real estate now. Prime real estate? In the 90s, I’d loved both neighborhoods since they were liminal spaces between wealth and poverty, spaces I’ve long felt comfortable living in since they strike a healthy balance between access to certain comforts, and staying connected to reality and real people. Back then, Silver Lake was a funky combination of Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants, mom and pop stores, laundromats, and Chicano murals, inhabited by working class Latinos and undocumented immigrants, gay men, artists, and miscellaneous liberal young adults like me. Highland Park had been low income and mostly Mexican with a few older liberal White residents. There were active gangs there. Apparently all that had changed too, but I didn’t want to see, fearful that my years of accumulated memories would be threatened by a barrage of sparkly, antiseptic new images.[/column][column sm=”3″]Inside the Bonaventure[/column][/row]
Don’t get me wrong, I like nice things. My New Orleans-born father taught me to appreciate good chocolate, fine wine and quality spirits. My Angeleno mother taught me to love tasty, healthy food. Both taught me to appreciate music and beauty, and to read books about everything. Experience and a decent income have taught me to enjoy travel and regular massage. Life has taught me that money can buy not just nice things, but respect and ease. But life, experience and my family also taught me that such privileges don’t exist in a vacuum. Money buys respect, ease and access, but at the expense of, and in contrast to, other people. Money buys nice things and comfortable experiences, but these aren’t available to all people, and not always because those people lack virtue, intelligence or effort.
My question to my sister, and myself, was …where did all the poor people go? The undocumented? The homeless? The housekeepers, janitors, day laborers? We’d experienced gentrification before in Pasadena in the 90s, where our own downtown went from “scary” to a place trendy Angelenos drove to for shopping and fine dining (in establishments owned by celebrities like Jennifer Lopez). If Los Angeles’ recent opulence were an indicator of a raised standard of living for all, increased opportunity, and shared wealth, I would rejoice. But I know otherwise, that the shiny exterior – as in so many other cities in the US – masks a dire reality. Income inequality has risen in recent years. Exponentially. Watch this video to learn how wealth the USA is distributed far more unequally than what most USians think, and much more unequally than we think is fair.
There is more cause for concern than the rise of inequality (which contains unfairness, exclusion and the seeds of political instability). Inequality seems to breed more inequality and encourage bad behavior in those who benefit. There is evidence that having access to more resources than others causes a certain type of unconscious bias and bad behavior that can happen almost immediately once someone gains those resources. See this eye opening video on the research out of UC Berkeley. I experienced this myself when I was in healthcare management, making good money and enjoying excellent benefits. I noticed a subtle shift in my sense of entitlement and superiority in interacting with others that surprised and concerned me. At a deep level, a part of me felt like I was worth more because my work was worth more, as evidenced by my income.
It appears that entitlement and superiority among those with power is almost inevitable because of how our brains work. But despite the relevance of power inequalities to diversity, inclusion, and unconscious bias work, social class and poverty mostly stay out of the professional D&I conversation. This is probably because it’s mostly elites like me – corporations and the corporately-employed, universities and the university-educated – who are talking about it, and working in the formal D&I field. In truth, the formal D&I field – especially the “intercultural” field – is mostly about helping elites communicate and work better with other elites, whether across the hallway or across the ocean.
[row][column sm=”4″]Elysium[/column][column sm=”8″]My experience in L.A. reminded me of another sci-fi movie I’d just seen – Elysium. It depicts a future Earth where the rich have fled to a luxurious, verdant space station in the sky where advanced health care technology allows them to live long, beautiful lives. Meanwhile, the majority scrape by below on Earth in misery – suffering lack of proper healthcare, working in unsafe brutal jobs, and tolerating regular harassment by droids that monitor and police them. When they manage to hijack ships through organized crime networks to try to get to Elysium, they’re shot out of the sky. The film stars Matt Damon as a man (living in Los Angeles) with few choices, brutalized by oppression, who becomes a cyborg and starts fighting on behalf of the impoverished masses to make Elysium – and its superior healthcare – accessible to everyone.[/column][/row]
[row][column sm=”8″]What strikes me about the film is that’s it’s not the future. It’s now. I’ve been to the Earth it portrays, as well as Elysium. Earth looks a lot like parts of the L.A. I remember, and many parts of the world today. The struggles in the film for justice, safe and fair work, equal pay and decent healthcare are happening now. The portrayal of dehumanization and role of technology are happening now. This seems to be a theme for the film’s director, Neill Blomkamp, a young South African who first got Hollywood’s attention with his film District 9, a critically acclaimed futuristic sci-fi commentary on racism and bigotry.[/column][column sm=”4″]Characters played by Matt Damon and Diego Luna fighting bad guys on Earth in Los Angeles, 2154.[/column][/row]
The supreme irony is that BOTH locations in the film – Earth and Elysium – were filmed in Mexico City: the largest city in the world, home to extreme poverty and extreme wealth (the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim Helú, is Mexican). Elysium is not about the future, it’s about what’s happening now. The US is looking more and more like Mexico City, more like Elysium/Earth, complete with vast wealth disparities, concentration of resources and power in the hands of the few, and an unstable political system.
Elysium is now. More than ever, downtown Los Angeles and its veneer of luxury is for the few, as in so many other cities today. Is this the world we want? As we work in diversity and inclusiveness, who are we leaving out? How does that impact the work we do, and how we do it? As long as the “D&I” field is silent about power relationships, and power inequities – supported and expressed through disparate access to key resources, knowledge, and people – we will always be leaving someone out. We will continue to be blind to the fact that our success, elite status, and ability to even have these conversations in the first place relies on the invisible, unacknowledged cheap labor of billions of intelligent, hardworking people worldwide that ensure the rest of us are clean, fed, clothed, housed, and equipped with the latest gadgets.
If we are truly about co-creating a world that works better for everyone, we should not lose sight of the fact that most of the world lives outside the ivory tower and the boardroom. They may clean the rooms at the Westin Bonaventure and cook the meals, but they don’t get to stay there. Our diversity and inclusion work shouldn’t deal exclusively with high ROI, improved customer satisfaction, boosted employee morale, and greater market share. It should also include working for justice and equity, ensuring that everyone – everyone – is heard, included in making decisions that matter, and fully supported in bringing their excellence and unique brilliance into the world.