Defining Diversity - Strategic Planning for Diversity

Defining Diversity

The language that we use to do diversity work is important and may vary from region to region or institution to institution. There are many terms that are sometimes used interchangeably when developing diversity programming. To help your organization make the most of their diversity plans, it is helpful to make clear what your organization means by diversity and to distinguish that from other terms. 

Listed below are definitions to help organize and clarify your organization’s diversity plan.

Diversity – The focus on the appreciation and understanding for people with different backgrounds and cultures (Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition, Routledge 2007); the condition of being diverse; especially the inclusion of diverse people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization (Merriam Webster); diversity is "otherness," or those human qualities that are different from our own and outside the groups to which we belong, yet are present in other individuals and groups (University of Maryland, “Moving Towards Community”); Diversity takes many forms.  It is usually thought of in terms of obvious attributes—age differences, race, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, religion, and language.  Diversity in terms of background professional experience, skills and specializations, values and culture, as well as social class is a prevailing pattern (United Nations, “Managing Diversity in the Civil Service”).

Multiculturalism - The preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society, as a state or nation. (

Inclusivity – an intention or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as the handicapped, learning-disabled, or racial and sexual minorities. (

Additionally, several terms are often used within the context of diversity.  It is important to note the meaning and potential application of these terms.

Ethnicity – A social construct that divides people into social groups based on characteristics such as shared sense of group membership, values, behavior, characteristics such as shared sense of group membership, values, behavior, patterns, language, political, and economic interests, history, and ancestral geographical location (Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition, Routledge 2007).

Ally – A person who actively works to eliminate and interrupt all forms of oppression, such as ableism, ageism, anti-Semitism, biphobia, classism, homophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, and xenophobia among others.  An ally is motivated by self interest, a sense of moral obligation, and/or a commitment to foster social justice. (Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition, Routledge 2007).

Cultural Competency – Ability to interact effectively with those from different backgrounds and cultures.  (Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition, Routledge, 2007).

Social Justice –  The focus on creating a just and equitable society where everyone has access to social power, resources, and physical and psychological safety.  Power dynamics result in social inequality. (Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition, Routledge 2007).

As stated earlier, many libraries may be affiliated with organizations (city government, school district, university, etc.) which already have a definition for diversity or inclusion.  Keeping the plan’s definition of diversity in line with the larger organization will help make the case for diversity and connect it to the mission of the organization and the larger community. 

The plan’s definition of diversity should make clear with either specific examples or clear explanations what is included in the organizations concept of “diversity.”  It should also strive to clarify what diversity can contribute to the organization and the individuals within the organization.


  • University of Nebraska-Lincoln “President’s Statement on Diversity”
    “We, the people of the State of Nebraska, are a mosaic of ethnicities, languages, and lifestyles. We live in an age when we must treat the various cultures and languages in our state as assets, not as weaknesses. At this point in our history, we would do a great disservice to our future generations if we were to encourage people to think that knowing only one culture and speaking only one language would be enough to remain competitive in an age when technology and the internet have brought us all closer together as a world-wide family.”
  • University of Michigan “Diversity Matters”
    “Diversity” as used here refers to human attributes that are different from your own and from those of groups to which you belong…. Visible diversity is generally those things we cannot change and are external, such as age, race, ethnicity, gender, and physical attributes. However, diversity goes beyond this to what we call “invisible” diversity. Invisible diversity includes those attributes that are not readily seen, such as work experience, marital status, educational background, parental status, income, religious beliefs and affiliations, geographic location, or socioeconomic status…. So, when we recognize, value, and embrace diversity, we are recognizing, valuing, and embracing the uniqueness of each individual.
  • University of California, Los Angeles “Principles of Community”
    The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is an institution that is firmly rooted in its land-grant mission of teaching, research, and public service. The campus community is committed to discovery and innovation, creative and collaborative achievements, debate and critical inquiry, in an open and inclusive environment that nurtures the growth and development of all faculty, students, administration and staff. These Principles of Community are vital for ensuring a welcoming and inclusive environment for all members of the campus community and for serving as a guide for our personal and collective behavior.
  • Yale University “Promoting Diversity and Equal Opportunity at Yale University: Policies, Resources, and Procedures”
    Yale’s diversity-of race, ethnicity, and gender-is among the University’s greatest assets. It infuses this campus with vitality and helps us to attract the most capable and promising individuals from around the world. The Yale community is made much richer by its diversity.
  • University of Minnesota “Reimagining Equity and Diversity”
    Diversity is not just numeric representation. Nor is it just an institutional asset or benefit. Far from just enriching or enhancing campus life or the academic enterprise, it is fundamental to everything we do at the University of Minnesota.  It is our responsibility as an institution to serve and support the following individuals and groups at the University of Minnesota—people of color, including underrepresented groups and new immigrant populations; people with both visible and hidden disabilities; women; people of various gender and sexual identities and expressions; first-generation students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We also address issues of access and climate for individuals who might encounter barriers based on their religious expression, age, national origin, ethnicity, or veteran status.

Once you have found a common language, be sure to structure all discussion, materials, and communications using the common language.