The Gifts of Strangers: Understanding the Benefits of Diversity

Posted on July 20, 2022
By John McKnight

One argument for diversity is that it ensures participation and creates the power of being heard. It is expressed by the popular maxim, “Nothing about us without us.” Implicit in this idea is the concept that those outside must come inside in order to ensure that their self-interest is served.

photo for diversity

There is another way of understanding the value of diversity. It does not focus on the importance of the outsiders gaining equal participation. Instead, it focuses on the benefit the outsider brings to the group. It recognizes that, in welcoming the stranger, the group becomes more powerful by adding the outsider’s capacity.

Welcoming the stranger

At least five kinds of group benefits can occur from “welcoming the stranger”:

  1. The stranger is an outsider and knows different cultures. These are cultures where people do things in a different ways. The stranger knows about these ways – different games, songs, poems, food, languages, inventions and faith – each a potential opening and opportunity for the group.

  2. The stranger knows how their people or the other people they know make decisions. These different ways of deciding can provide opportunities for overcoming our own barriers to effective discussions and actions.

  3. Coming from a different association, ethnicity, nation, or local culture, the stranger knows about different ways of achieving the common good. If we come from a culture based on hyper-individualism, their knowledge can create a more balanced community practice.

  4. The stranger’s knowledge and practices will often surprise us. This surprise reflects our reaction to a different way that is based on a different vision for the future. These visions of the outsider offer new ways for us to imagine our own future.

  5. As the stranger shares their knowledge and practices, trust is built with the outsider. It is that trust that is the foundation of democracy.


Embracing hospitality

These five community benefits are unavailable without diversity, and achieving that diversity depends upon groups practicing hospitality. As a practice, active hospitality requires an invitation to the outsider and the stranger – an offering to become associated with us in many, many ways.

One of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute’s wisest Stewards was Judith Snow (1950–2015), an inclusion advocate with a physical condition that eventually left her wheelchair bound with only the power to move the muscles in her thumb and face. To most people, she said she was a strange outsider, but to anyone who had met her, she was the wisest person they had encountered.

Judith said most community groups look inward, their vision obscured by the wall of like-mindedness. That is why, above all, they should have a “welcome at the edge.” Otherwise, they will never receive the gifts that only strangers can bring to their group.


Further learning

Community Engagement, ABCD, Community Development, Isolation, CDC Blogs, CDC Publications, Homepage Blog

John McKnight

By John McKnight

John McKnight is a founder and co-director of Asset-Based Community Development Institute, whose graduates -- including both Michelle and Barack Obama -- continue to have impact strengthening communities and neighbourhoods around the world. In 2013, John was awarded an Honourary Docorate from the University of Waterloo in recognition of his innovative work. For three decades John has researched social service delivery systems, health policy, community organizations and neighbourhood policy. He is the author of The Careless Society and co-author of Building Communities from the Inside Out and The Abundant Community. John serves on the Boards of several national organizations that support neighbourhood development and he remains tireless in his recognition and championing of citizens -- and their capacity to care for one another -- as an essential resource in the work of building better communities and neighbourhoods.

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