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27 October 2020

Who is the B for? The Case for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging

Written by
Akasha Saunders

“The absence of belonging is the great silent wound of our times.” Toko-pa, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves home

In my first blog in this series, I introduced three lessons I have learned from co-facilitating the Leading Inclusively laboratory with my colleague and friend, Vernice Jones. These lessons center around: (1) being grounded in and explicit about the case for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging; (2) fostering a space that invites, recognizes, and respects all kinds of social identity and cultural differences; and (3) slowing down to love people publicly across their differences.  I think about these lessons as the case, the space, and the pace.  In this second blog in the series, I share some insights about the case for leading inclusively.

I was recently in a conversation with a colleague at Cultivating Leading who asked, “Who is the B in DIB for anyway? Whose time is it to belong? Black people, Arab women, trans people of color?” This colleague is a White male living in Denmark who does diversity, equity, and inclusion work. He acknowledged that the global systems of oppression, White dominance, and inequity has violently disadvantaged Black, Indigenous, People of Color, women, Muslims, members of the LGBTQI+ community, and so many other marginalized groups. In fact, he has spent the past 20+ years helping people, teams, and organizations around the world fight against this marginalization. He feels as though he belongs, to do work in this space. Some others feel differently. These others, some White and some People of Color, have declared that White people cannot do good work in this space right now. This is one of the most controversial and complex dilemmas in DEI work today. What are your thoughts on this? I may write more about this dilemma in another blog. For now, I address the B in Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB).

One goal of DIB work is to foster more diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Lots of research reveals that DIB supports learning, leading in complexity, growing our businesses, and evolving as a species.  We often default to the business case, or the simple stories about DIB rather than the bigger and deeper picture. We focus on the numbers and other tangible outcomes. And although important, it’s not enough to hire one more Black or Brown person (diversity), include them on a committee (inclusion), and pay that one Black person the same or higher than the last White person who occupied their role (equity, a bit). Although also good starts, we need to do more than host race conversations, provide diversity trainings, form a diversity and inclusion council, hire a diversity director, and “clean” policies, processes, and systems. Diversity alone is not enough. Inclusion alone is not enough. My colleague Jennifer Garvey Berger recently wrote about these ideas here, here, and here. We need to foster experiences and cultures where people from diverse backgrounds experience belonging – feel accepted and loved for who they are. Belonging is just as an important a case for DIB as all the others. In fact, what if the other cases for DIB also serve the purpose of healing the great silent wound of our times – the absence of belonging?

Belonging transcends and includes social identity differences. That means it is as much for the marginalized as it is for members of dominant groups. It is for the Black woman who has worked in the same White-dominated organization for decades without being offered a promotion and it is also for the White male leaders who denied her the opportunity to advance. Belonging is also for the Afro-Caribbean gay man who was ousted from his church community as much as it is for the pastor, his father, who kicked him out. It is as much for the Maori tribe, or iwi, struggling to provide educational and economic opportunities for their children in their own country as much as it is for the Pākehā (Māori-language term for New Zealanders primarily of European descent) who visited, settled, and dominated the country. It is not easy to think of belonging for those with greater privilege and power. Yet, we are all stranded at sea looking and hoping for the same boat of belonging to save us.

Cultivating a culture of belonging is a major case for our work with the Leading Inclusively laboratory. One of the ways we attempt to cultivate this culture of belonging is through high-quality interactions across cultural and social identity differences. We are mostly okay with sameness. We are wired to look for and focus on our similarities.  In the Lab, we invite our differences, deliberately make space to voice those differences, and practice engaging across those differences.

Engaging across our differences stimulates cognitive complexity, perspective-taking, and intercultural humility and empathy. It challenges us too. It exposes power, presents opportunities to interrogate and use that power for good. Engaging across our differences is an opportunity to foster a nurturing culture where love and compassion are the key currencies. Jennifer, who also participated in the lab, wrote, “I noted a new feeling in my body as I looked at these folks, mostly people I had never seen before our first class in July and whom I had never met in person. I realized with some surprise that I felt love for these individuals who had shown something of themselves to the rest of us. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, I felt love for our collective. I realized in that moment that love is the true platform for all of this work on Inclusive Leadership.” Love and care – the pillars of belonging – are as important cases for DIB efforts as any other. Yet, these are the elements that are usually less elevated.

By love and care, I mean mostly that people want to be seen and their concerns and hopes genuinely acknowledged. People are usually doing a lot of work managing their identities. This is like a second job. Some of us keep our class status, sexual orientation, gender, and religious affiliation hidden while on the job. That is not how we want to live our lives. We want the multidimensionality of who we are to be seen and acknowledged. Yet, we feel threatened if others know about these hidden aspects of ourselves. This is one paradox of inclusion and belonging. We have historically structured our societies to normalize certain identities and to diminish others, and to normalize the hiding of our full selves. So, we have a society of people hiding from each other and from ourselves, while desperately wanting to be seen, loved, and held. At the same time, we worry that if we are seen so fully others might reject us more easily.

I had similar worries most of my life. As a child, I was too poor to hang out with the good, smart kids at school. As a teenager, too Black and Jamaican to matter in predominantly White, educated, rich, American spaces. As an emerging adult, too Christian to be considered as open and accepting of others. And as an adult, too much of a foreigner to participate in political and economic processes. I felt that I did not belong anywhere. I used to feel very much the outsider because I could not find a place, a home, where all these dimensions of my identity felt welcomed and where others could emerge. And I allowed my outsiderness to shield me from the experience of love and care from others. I made the very identities I wanted to liberate imprison me.

I did a lot of work to include myself even while feeling like I did not belong. Many of us do. I believe we need to include ourselves before we can genuinely include others. I see more and more of us doing this, and getting close to quitting our second job of managing, and sometimes suppressing, our identities. We take up a new vocation of making and navigating that belonging boat together. We save each other. Heal each other. Some of us in the Leading Inclusively program find ourselves in more and more situations where others acknowledge, “We seem to get along so well and yet, we are so different. Can we explore our differences together?” And in our exploring, we get to know each other, see each other, and experience deep love for each other across our differences. This is our work, the work we all belong to.

In the next blog, I’ll explore some of the conditions that foster spaces for DIB. Until then, reflect on:

  • What parts of you belong and what parts are yearning to belong?
  • Whose belonging – individual or group – are you committed to?
  • Whose belonging – individual or group – are you opposed to? In other words, who have you been excluding?

Photo taken by Akasha on a boat ride in Varanasi on the Ganges. 

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