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24 November 2020

The Space – What’s In The Space

Written by
Akasha Saunders

In my previous two blogs, here and here, I introduced three lessons I am learning from co-facilitating the Leading Inclusively laboratory with friend and colleague, Vernice Jones. I described these lessons as the case, the space, and the pace for diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB). I wrote about the case in my previous blog where I talked about belonging as a fundamental and universal need. We have the opportunity, responsibility, and power to include and engage across differences – our own and that of others.

At the end of the previous blog, I invited us to reflect on the power we have in fostering inclusion and belonging. I asked:

  • 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? Or, who have you been excluding?

In this blog, I talk about the space for fostering DIB. After we decide to act on our DIB commitment – our why – we turn to the question of how.

Leading inclusively has a lot to do with how we engage across differences. And engaging across our differences can be challenging. We see this when we look at the conflict between India and Pakistan, U.S. Democrats and Republicans, and, for some of us, encounters with our teenagers. In the organizations where we work and serve, there are also differences in how much importance we place on DIB. Some think there is already enough and others think we haven’t started yet. Although I am for our engaging across these and other differences, there are real concerns to consider when we do. These concerns are different depending on the level of system we are engaging at, such as interpersonal, organizational, and systems. I am focusing mostly at the interpersonal and organizational levels in this blog.

When we engage across our differences, many of us want to know: Is the space safe? Will I be comfortable? Is it okay for me to speak up, speak first, or speak openly? How much space is okay for me to take up? How can I avoid messing up or hurting others? Will they understand and take my perspective seriously? What will this interaction cost me? These are all valid questions that people from multiple social identity groups have asked in the Leading Inclusively lab. And they ask these questions because they do not want to cause harm, they want to learn, they want to be seen and have their issue acknowledged, and they want to belong and help others feel like they also belong. So, how do we foster spaces of belonging?

In Leading Inclusively, we aim to humanize the space together. We usually start with a centering exercise where we draw attention to our individual presence in the space as well as to our awareness of the collective, of the we space. We are learning that a humanizing space gets created from the weaving together of our authentic, vulnerable, and embodied stories of hurt, hope, and anxiety about engaging across differences. We attempt to leave perfectionism at the door. Perfectionism as a destination is wiped off the map. It is not a goal. Seeing each other is.

As we listen deeply to each other’s stories and ideas, we extend our awareness into the inner landscape of the other so as to genuinely discover what it’s like to be them, to see the world as they see it, and to meet them with a nurturing heart and curious mind. It is a space for the integration of heart and mind. The Leading Inclusively space is a daring space. The stories others share and the differences they represent may very likely challenge our own. One participant from the Caribbean said, “I’ve never had interactions with White women before. I never trusted them. I was paired with a woman during the first session and that challenged my perspective because I actually had a good experience with her.” Slow down a bit and notice your reactions to this experience. What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What’s happening in your body? See what’s in your space.

We notice that when we choose to open up ourselves beyond our stories, the process can transform our mindset and our relationships. Together, we make and become a room for the full range of our differences, of our humanity, and for love and intimacy to abide. Power too.

Leading inclusively is about understanding our relationship to power and being intentional about using it for good. It doesn’t help to ignore power when we engage across differences. We don’t presume what power is in the space and who has it. We find out together. Sometimes, we simply ask: What’s our experience of power here and now – yours and others’? When we intentionally explore power and how we can use it for good, we make space for love-in-action, for belonging. When we practice inclusion and belonging, power needs to be acknowledged, shared and improvisational (like jazz). We all have power in the space and practicing inclusive leadership means that we share the power, not in some pre-determined way but in an emergent way…emergent shared power. The Leading Inclusively space is a space of emergent shared power that is structured in love. That is, we discover how power is present and decide on how we want to engage with it.

So, what’s in the space? Everything that shows up when we do – love, anger, frustration, hope, fear, power, and so much more. Our humanity. We foster a space of belonging when we acknowledge the range of humanity and make room for it to abide. Such spaces are expansive enough to hold our differences and yet enable us to be our fullest autonomous and interconnected selves. It takes time to foster a space like this, though. I’ll explore that in the next blog on the pace for fostering DIB.

In the meantime, reflect on:

  • What power do you bring to the spaces you enter?
  • What are some of the consequences of your power?
  • What purpose do you want your power to serve?

One thought on “The Space – What’s In The Space”

  1. Donna Clark says:

    Akasha I love the three distinctions you are working with here. Thank you for bringing your fresh perspectives and love to this work across difference.

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