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15 October 2020

Fostering Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging - The Case, The Space, and The Pace

Written by
Akasha Saunders

As I start to write this blog, I am watching a small grey bird, I think a Cocoa Thrush (I do not know much about birds), perched on the mirror of our car. Every 5 seconds or so, it flies to the front passenger window, hovers for a while, and then picks at the window with its beak. Nothing happens, of course. Yet, it keeps trying. It hovers there as if saying, “Why won’t you open up and let me in?” Then it eventually flies back and perches on the mirror. It stays there for a while. And in a few seconds, tries all over again.

How many of us try to enter spaces we thought would be open to us that aren’t? Of course, people are not birds. But, we come up against some kind of barrier or boundary. This is especially true if we belong to a marginalized group because of our race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, religion, or ability. We are overlooked for a promotion because of our gender or race—or both. We get left behind our peers in school because of our different ability. We are mocked and ridiculed because of our political affiliation. How many of us? Too many.

And how many of us block others from accessing spaces, from being included and from experiencing belonging?  Some of us don’t even know that we do this. Others of us know it, but do not know how to not do it. And there are more and more of us who do not yet know how, but are taking steps to learn. This blog series is about the latter group and some lessons I am learning from spending time with people from this group. Although I have been involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion work for some time now, there is much that I do not know, that I question, and that I have seen fail.

Researchers tell us that some DEI efforts fail partly due to issues related to methodology, training skills, and leadership buy-in. Some of what I see in DEI efforts involves our holding to being right while trying desperately not to be wrong. In other cases, I see us holding expectations that everyone in the group or organization embraces DEI. We hardly leave room for people to question or deny the importance of diversity and inclusion. We resist their resistance. I don’t think that is our intention. I believe that most of us want to get along with others and to improve conditions where all people are included and feel a sense of belonging.

I think another reason some DEI efforts fail is because we are using approaches today that worked well during times when we had more certainty, when life and work were more predictable, and conditions (systemic and interpersonal) were such that people mostly kept their marginalized identities hidden. Back then, more trainings, tools, and the occasional recognition of other cultures, like Waitangi Day (in New Zealand), Pride Month, and Black History Month were the focus. We need more than these in today’s increasingly complex and deeply relational world. We need approaches that are more emergent, flexible, and intimate.

We at Cultivating Leadership – Vernice Jones and myself with exceptional support from Naomi Berger – have been running a program called Leading Inclusively. We started the program because of our commitment to growing leaders and because we love the world and its diversity. We also believe that inclusion matters. More than that, we want to see a world where everyone has a sense of belonging. We recently completed the first two cohorts of this program of about 70 people. We combine diversity, equity, and inclusion concepts with complexity and adult development ideas and practices. However, rather than focus on particular frameworks, we are attempting to facilitate a lived experience of what it means to lead and be led inclusively. The program is a lab where we dare to connect and stumble across our differences. We are learning a lot.  We are messing up a lot too, by the way.

We are learning a great deal about what it takes to foster diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB). We are learning the importance of creating a space where people feel safe enough to stumble forward together and love publicly across their differences. We’re learning that we cannot rush through this work. And we’re learning about using our individual and collective power for good in fostering cultures of belonging. We face a paradox in this work. Well, we face more than a few paradoxes. A significant one is that people of color are increasingly fatigued when in white spaces while white people want to be in more diverse spaces, primarily with people of color.  This is similar for members of other marginalized and dominant identity groups. People want to be seen. At the same time, we are cautious about feeling exposed. This can seem like a game of hide and seek to some. Except that this is no game. People’s well-being is at stake.

We understand that it is challenging for leaders to do this work well. And it’s been a BIG year for DIB in many organizations across the globe. People are doing a lot. For example, over 1,300 CEOs from across the world have signed the CEO Action Pledge for Diversity and Inclusion, pledging their commitment and resources to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace. And I wonder, what are we all learning as we try to be better human beings to each other? What new ways might be emerging to think about and foster diversity, inclusion, and belonging in our organizations, institutions, and communities?

In this blog series, I will share three key things I am learning about leading inclusively. The lessons focus on: (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.  Think about these lessons as the case, the space, and the pace.

While you wait for the next blog (which will be soon), reflect on:

  • What is the work that is calling you forth in the diversity, inclusion, and belonging space?
  • Why does this work matter?
  • Who benefits from you not doing this work? How do they benefit?

Photo credit: Atikul Haque Rafat from Pexels

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