All in the family

To create and maintain a successful Kiwanis club, embrace diversity. 

Story by Julie Saetre

At the 2019 Kiwanis International Convention, delegates overwhelmingly approved an amendment to add a revised nondiscrimination clause to the bylaws, reading in part: “Kiwanis clubs shall not discriminate based upon race, color, creed, national origin, age or sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity, when considering membership or during any of their activities or operations.”

The “age” and “sex” categories were a new and welcome addition to Kiwanians like Donovan Gaylor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a 23-year-old serving as the 2019-20 president of the Los Altos Kiwanis Club. Or like Miguel Sarasa, who founded the LGBT+ Kiwanis Club, an internet-based club in southern California.

Gaylor leads a club membership with an average age of 70-plus, while Sarasa — lieutenant governor for Division 47 in the California-Nevada-Hawaii District — started a club to focus on the needs of LGBT+ youth. The revised bylaw reinforces what they strongly believe: Serving the children of the world is a goal everyone, no matter their differences, can embrace together.

“When I think of diversity, I think of different types of people coming together as one whole being,” says Gaylor. “You put all the opposites and differences aside, and you emphasize the main goal. And for Kiwanis, the main goal is to serve children and the communities in which we live.”

Adds Sarasa, “It’s important that we’re evolving and understanding that times are changing, and we need to be more understanding. Ultimately, we’re here on this earth, and we need to help make a difference.”

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As it turns out, building a diverse membership base and fostering inclusion also make for a more sustainable club, says Kathleen Nalty, a U.S.-based educator and consultant who specializes in creating cultures of inclusion to help organizations retain talent.

“There’s a huge business case for diversity and inclusion,” she says. “All the research shows there are tremendous business benefits to be derived.”

In her report, “The Business Imperative of Diversity & Inclusion (D+I),” Nalty cites multiple studies showing that companies and organizations with a diverse staff or membership and an inclusive environment set themselves up for success:

A 2015 study of nearly 400 companies worldwide found that those with the highest levels of diversity in both gender and race/ethnicity and a commitment to inclusion were 170% better at innovation and 180% better at adapting to change.

Research from 2017 revealed a direct connection between diversity and inclusion and better business decisions.

“When I think of diversity, I think of different types of people coming together as one whole being. You put all the opposites and differences aside, and you emphasize the main goal. And for Kiwanis, the main goal is to serve children and the communities in which we live.”

Several studies report that when an “outsider” — someone with a social identity not shared by other members of a group — is included in the mix, higher group performance takes place. Why? The “groupthink dynamic” has been altered.

Research by a Cornell University professor showed that when business unit managers focus on being inclusive and developing solid relationships with all staff members, not just those with whom they have the most in common, retention rates rise.

In short, Nalty says, diversity and inclusion aren’t just nice concepts to consider. They’re vital to an organization’s continued relevance and strength.

“A statement (alone) is never going to do anything. Relying just on the statement is not going to make any kind of change happen,” Nalty says. “The future of an organization hinges on its ability to transition into the 21st century. Just relying on 20th century notions around diversity isn’t enough. Because this new paradigm of inclusion requires organizations to do things differently than they have in the past, not just to talk the talk, but actually to walk it.”

Gaylor attended his first Los Altos Kiwanis Club meeting when he was around age 4 or 5, as a guest of his great-grandfather (then the club’s immediate past president and a current member). So when Gaylor stepped into the presidential role two years after becoming a member himself, he knew the club already fostered an inclusive culture. While members do share a similar age range, they also celebrate personal differences.

“Our club is really diverse,” he says. “I’m African American and white. We have Hispanic, Muslim and Jewish members in our club. And we all have very, very different backgrounds. But every Thursday when we meet, we have one goal and one main focus — which I find really awesome.”

Sarasa, a former Key Club member, originally joined the Hemet Kiwanis Club in southern California and served as its president for two years. As he pondered ways to engage with potential new members, an idea surfaced.

“Especially now, more than ever, there’s a need to support LGBT youth,” he says. “And I was thinking, ‘Why not bridge the two?’ It would open up a whole new demographic of potential new members who want to directly impact their own community.”

A 2019 survey by The Trevor Project, a U.S.-based organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth under 25, shows just why that support is needed. Results revealed that 71% of LGBTQ youth reported discrimination due to either their sexual orientation or gender identity, 71% had felt sad or hopeless for at least two weeks in the past year and 39% had seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months.

But support can help reverse those statistics. In June 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released study results showing that LGBTQ youth who have at least one accepting adult in their lives are 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.

Enter Sarasa’s new LGBT+ club. The Kiwanis Literacy in Southern California Club became an enthusiastic sponsor, cheered on by 2019-20 President Doug Chadwick and his wife, Jean. Not everyone in the community readily embraced the idea, however.

“The biggest challenge was hesitation that we got from some, even Kiwanians: ‘Why is there a need to create this club separate from a traditional club?’ There were a few individuals who I think had a hard time even accepting the whole concept,” Sarasa says. “The harsh reality is it’s still kind of a touchy subject.”

“The future of an organization hinges on its ability to transition into the 21st century. Just relying on 20th century notions around diversity isn’t enough. Because this new paradigm of inclusion requires organizations to do things differently than they have in the past, not just to talk the talk, but actually to walk it.”

That’s not unusual, Nalty says, because the “birds of a feather flock together” tendency of humans comes into play. Most of us don’t set out to intentionally discriminate. Rather, we have unintentional bias: learned, deeply ingrained stereotypes that affect our behavior without our conscious knowledge.

“One of the biggest ones is affinity bias, where we gravitate toward people who are more like us, who share similar interests, backgrounds, social identities,” Nalty explains.

The problem is that when we associate primarily with those most like us, we create an environment that’s conducive to attracting more people who fit that mold, continually leaving others outside the circle.

“One day,” Nalty cautions, “each club will turn around and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this isn’t sustainable. We don’t have enough members.’”

Overcoming unconscious bias takes mindfulness, commitment and work. It won’t just happen, because good intentions aren’t enough.

“It starts with awareness and going out of your comfort zone to interact with people who are different from yourself, who have different social identities, who have different cultures and customs and preferences,” Nalty says. “The values of what Kiwanis does cross all kinds of boundaries and cultures and backgrounds. But you have to be purposeful about it.”

How to take those first steps?

Re-evaluate when you meet.
When former Key Club member Stacey Simmons and her husband wanted to join a Washington, D.C.-area Kiwanis club, they first looked close to home. But that club held meetings during a workday lunch hour.

“People in the first few years of their career, we don’t have the opportunity to leave work whenever we want,” Simmons explains. “An hour, an hour-and-a-half meeting becomes two hours away from work. That’s something I wouldn’t be able to do.”

They instead joined the Washington Kiwanis Club, which has a D.C. Young Professionals Committee with members in their 20s and 30s. Because the committee meets and holds projects and social events on evenings and weekends, it’s more accommodating to younger people who want to serve.

Diversify club promotions.
The D.C. Young Professionals Committee publicizes its projects and events through Meetup, a website that allows its members to search and register for opportunities of interest. 

“There are people who have never heard of Kiwanis and find us there,” says Simmons. “People find us on Meetup, come to events and end up joining. That’s worked out really well for us.”

Go beyond your usual means of communication and research additional forms that target different audiences.

Shake up your service projects.
When you reach out to a variety of groups in need, you introduce Kiwanis (and your club members) to a more comprehensive mix of individuals. Sarasa’s club works with two southern California youth centers that offer support to LGBTQ+ youth. Some of the young people need transitional housing, so the club provides backpacks with necessities and comfort items.

“A hygiene pack, blankets — anything we can do to show LGBT youth that there are adults who are there for them,” Sarasa says. “Unfortunately, we’re dealing with a population of children who come out, and their families don’t accept them and have a hard time. We just wanted to be that positive light to let kids know that they matter, that we’re here and we see them.”

Make all members feel welcome.
The Vinton, Iowa, Kiwanis Club has two members who are blind. Ray Lough and his wife have hosted 73 foster children since 1995, adopting 11. Carolyn Hibbs taught Braille before retirement. Both are active in the Vinton club; Hibbs has served a term as president. Hibbs’ late husband, who was quadriplegic, also was a past president and involved member.

“We were grateful the club saw our abilities to serve, rather than the limitations society often places on us,” Hibbs says.

 “I am not a joiner,” Lough says, “but the club was such a great fit. The members of our club are truly unique. They go out of their way to make sure everyone feels included.”

Becoming a more diverse, inclusive club is worth the time and effort. It creates a new pipeline for members, introduces fresh energy and inspiration and solidifies sustainability. And it makes all Kiwanians stronger servant leaders.

“At the end of the day, we need to understand that we’re all humans, and we need to be here to support each other, regardless of our differences,” says Sarasa. “Ultimately, our mission as Kiwanians is kids and helping them through this crazy thing called life.”


This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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