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27 January 2021

Slowing Down To Go Far – DIB efforts and how the pace matters

Written by
Akasha Saunders

It is tempting these days to rush through diversity, inclusion, belonging (DIB) and equity efforts. We want to demonstrate to shareholders and other stakeholders that we are doing something, or making progress. When we take this approach, though, we mostly privilege the strategic (focusing on action) at the expense of the relational (slowing down to connect). This usually results in excluding important voices and issues, people getting hurt, and some resisting change or otherwise intentionally or unintentionally jeopardizing the long-term success of DIB efforts. The thing is that DIB issues are complex. They cannot be controlled or solved by sheer will, speed, or relying solely on good practices that have worked for other organizations or at other times. Instead, successful DIB efforts require deep understanding of the particular issues groups and organizations face. We deepen our understanding all while building and expanding relationships. So, this work takes time and requires intimacy. We must start close in, to borrow from poet David Whyte. At this point, some of you might be wondering, what does intimacy have to do with conversations about race; hiring, promoting, and paying members of marginalized more equitably; and enabling culturally-diverse employees and teams to thrive? A lot.

In the first three blogs in this series, I mostly discussed the strategic element of DIB (the case) and then bridged the strategic with some relational (the space). In this blog, I focus primarily on the relational dimension (the pace) and at interpersonal and group levels. The pace of DIB efforts is also critical in organizations. There is a demand for changes in hiring and promotion practices, more equitable pay scales, and more inclusion and respect for different cultures and social identities. Some of us would agree that changes like these need to go faster, not slower. Members of marginalized groups, as a whole, have been intentionally left out of certain organizations, fields, and leadership positions for too long. Barriers that inhibit their access and progress are cruel and need to be dismantled. Fast. Yet, even with these strategic actions, relationships matter a great deal. Organizations must move fast to improve diversity and equity, and slow down to practice inclusion and belonging. Otherwise, they may cause more harm than good. 

In the Leading Inclusively Lab, Vernice and I often hear people talk about how they appreciate the pace of the sessions. They say it’s a slower pace than they used to and that it allows for a transformational experience. As facilitators, we have an agenda that we usually spent hours designing together. And we choose to slow down during the lab experience. Although not always easy, we prioritize the people agenda over the paper agenda. Why? When we dare to connect across our differences challenging experiences arise for people, like shame, guilt, fear, and rage. We also bump into each other. And not only the participants. As facilitators, we sometimes end up causing harm to others too. We use inappropriate pronouns, fail to acknowledge some participants and the issues that matter most to them, and sometimes give confusing instructions. We are consistently working to do better with these things.  

One of the reasons we slow down is, as Vernice likes to say, to allow us to metabolize the experience. That is, we take the time to process what’s happening with individuals and the collective. People get to check in with themselves – “how am I doing now? what am I learning about myself and others?” This slowing down and processing makes it possible for us to metamorphose experiences of shame, guilt, fear, and rage into love-in-action and shifts in perspective. As an example, when we harm each other in the space, we slow down and ROAR – Recognize, Own, Apologize, and Repair the relationship. Don’t get me wrong. All of the steps of ROARing don’t necessarily happen in the same session or conversation. The Repair, especially, can take some time. 

Some time ago, I was co-facilitating another workshop for some coaches. I was making a point about sometimes feeling vulnerable when facilitating sessions with mostly white people. I looked at the zoom screen and said something to the effect of, “When I look at all these white faces, I feel ready to provoke and engage deeply.” I felt proud of myself for saying this. It was a practice to escape the trap of my “fragiguard” (a phenomenon where I noticed myself actively guarding white people from their own fragility or being triggered by conversations about race and other DIB activities). I was feeling good until an Asian American participant spoke up. She said, “You know, I am accustomed to feeling invisible. It’s one of the things I struggle with in conversations about race because they are usually black and white. And I gotta say that when you spoke earlier, Akasha, and mentioned ‘all these white faces,’ I felt invisible. Don’t feel bad though. I am used to it.” And just like that, my celebration turned into remorse. My immediate thought was “Gosh. I just messed up bad.” I felt disappointed in myself and grateful for the participant. I was also sad to hear this person say that they were used to being invisible. That’s not acceptable. Leading inclusively is partly about fostering belonging. And belonging is about people feeling seen. Seeing each other requires that we slow down. In that case, I acknowledged the blunder, owned it without making excuses (at least I tried to), and apologized. The participant and I met a few times after the session and are learning quite a bit from each other. I am learning to listen to see the multiple dimensions of our identities more deeply and just how liberating and transformational that can be for people. So, now I stare at how I engage with others as opposed to glance.

My main point here is that, in leading inclusively and in DIB work, we move at the pace of love and belonging. We prioritize relationships. It means that we open ourselves up to feedback. When someone needs attention or support, we pause and engage. We also make room for conflict. And we stumble forward together. While we likely stumble quickly and fast, the “forward” and “together” pieces take time. 

I started writing this longer-than-planned blog series last year while watching a small black bird peck at the window of a car, as if trying to get in. As I wrap up the series, I can hear birds chirping in the trees in the backyard. They are like an orchestra. I don’t know what kinds of birds they are. What I know is that they sound glorious, that they belong to the space, and that I don’t need to let them in anywhere. They are free within a most expansive space, while I watch them from inside a concrete structure with potted plants. In a few minutes, though, I will step outside the structure to share the space with them. There is room for all of us. 

I will start another series soon on some competencies for leading inclusively. In the meantime, reflect on:

  • What is the direction of your DIB and equity efforts? Where are you heading? 
  • Where might you need to slow down and deepen relationships? With whom – individuals or groups – might you need to ROAR? 
  • What structure(s) might you need to step outside of so as to make more space for others, and yourself?

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