Thursday, November 18, 2010

Diversity was an old, old wooden ship

Survey says - nope, you probably didn't get the movie reference. Deduct two points.

As we gear up for the annual reenactment of Great Bridge in Chesapeake VA, we're discussing how to mesh what NHS has become with the programming of previous years. Last year at this time, NHS was known as "The Lobsterback Society" - a group dedicated to teaching Americans about their revolutionary origins by portraying the antagonists in the Revolutionary War - the British. And we did that rather well, if I say so myself. When the crowd, irritated by having to swear a loyalty oath to King George or some other abuse, decided to heckle and rebuff the troops, they each discovered a little more about what it took to be a patriot in those uncertain times. After all, those gleaming bayonets and bright red coats have a certain way of intimidating the opposition. Takes some gall, even when you know we can't hurt you or break your stuff, to stand up to that. Point was well recieved.

Now, we're incorporating an entirely different mission into the programming. We still have the original goal of using the 'bad guys' to show you how difficult it can be to stand up for what's right. And we're finding that moral fortitude can be a difficult pill for some to swallow. That's because this year, for the first time in our programming, we are marching into the fray, as it were, with participants who don't fit the historic mold of who we're pretending to be. Let me explain.

Over the past year, we've worked with several youth groups to take NHS programming - the "crucible" concept of training, teamwork and leadership - to a broader audience. In the process we've worked with men and women, young and old, of numerous ethnicities and religions. It was never a big deal, an oarsman is an oarsman and your position in the boat is wholly dependent on your skills, not your demographic. But as we all know, this was not the case in the 18th century. While some may argue that the British Marines (they weren't 'Royal' until 1802) were comprised of men of many different ages, and the occasional disguised female, there are no historical examples (that I've seen) of African, Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern mainstream British Marines in that time period. There were examples of some diversity in the Continental Marines, where several African Americans are known to have been enlisted and served with some distinction on various ships. But not amongst the British.

I should note that almost every Navy in the world at the time recruited from just about anyone they could find to do the job, and so diversity was very common amongst sailors. So thankfully our boat crew - diversity and all - is rather authentic. But amongst our "British Marines" this year we are very likely to have some Hispanic, African American and/or Asian participants, and I know this is going to cause a little heartburn among the die-hard authenticity nuts. To anyone who has a problem with this - our Bylaws are quite clear:

No person because of race, color, creed, sex, age, disability or national origin shall be unlawfully denied membership, unlawfully excluded from participation, or otherwise subjected to unlawful discrimination.

Participants may be excluded from participation in an activity based on unsuitability for the physical requirements of participation and resultant increased risk to their personal health or safety, or the health and safety of other Participants. However, no Member or Participant shall be excluded from attendance at an official function on the basis of physical unsuitability for activities that constitute only a portion of that function.
These provisions, or some adaptation thereof, are required of every 501(c)3 organization by Federal Law. And because this seems as appropriate a venue and time as any, let me expand on this:

It is my sincere hope and goal that the Naval Heritage Society should never cater to any specific enthic group, gender or religion in any way, shape or form. I won't support any effort to recruit people from any specific demographic, or ensure their retainment. I will however strive to ensure fair treatment of all members and participants, provide a prejudice- and harassment-free environment for conduct of operations and activities, and work to bind all persons that choose to participate in the spirit of our common humanity and the realization of the benefits that can be derived from the power of the concerted community above the capabilities of the individual.

I am more than willing to let go of a little historcial authenticity here to ensure everyone learns something. There are plenty of other historical anachronisms to tackle before anyone can begin telling people to "go home - your skin is the wrong shade".

Dismount, SOAPBOX!


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