I recently had the honor of facilitating a program for a group of government leaders where we focused on leading diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in organizations that have historically been very homogenized in their demographic make up.
The first activity I conducted included partner introductions where individuals had to answer the question, “what key messages did you receive from an early age that shaped who you are and how you show up in the world?” This simple question led to immediate connections between even the most unlikely of pairs. In fact, an older White male from rural Nevada and a younger African American female from New York City really bonded. Throughout the program, they shared their life experiences and perspectives over meals, small group dialogues, and a tour though the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. At one point, the man came up to me and expressed how powerful this experience had been for him, and how much of Black history he just never learned. He expressed his gratitude to his new friend and colleague for being patient with him and making him feel safe to explore his blind spots. He vowed to talk to his grandchildren about the experience so they can be more educated than he was at a young age. He committed himself to being an ally for the marginalized in his own organization.
It was magical.
These days, surrounded as we are by our society’s leaders hurling insults and divisive language to summon fear and anger among their followers, it was cathartic to see two people create a deep connection, to look past what is on the surface and honor the human beneath. They weren’t the only ones, either. The entire group of 40 participants shared similar moments of reflection and community with one another. They took off the mantle of protecting their “tribe” and listened to others who came from very different backgrounds and experiences.
My ongoing learning in this work is that in order to make diversity, equity, and inclusion learning “stick,” we need to take the time to build in space for dialogue. My ground rules for such dialogues include:
- Accept multiple realities. My lived experience is my “truth” but it is by no means the only truth. To create community I must listen with the intention to really “see” the other person, even if their opinions and beliefs are vastly different than mine.
- Embrace imperfection. Ooooh, this is the hardest for me! I am an overachiever and want to always “get it right.” But this work is messy and I have to wade into the discomfort of conversations around race, ethnicity, gender, etc. I have to be willing to ask or say something wrong, to request feedback on my blind spots, and to really hear the impact my actions have on others.
- “Ouch” and Educate. If I’m going to be willing to hear the impact my actions have on others, I also need the courage to speak my truth, and give feedback to others. I assume positive intentions on the part of others, even when they say something that perhaps offends or annoys me. Then I share my experience with them. For example, “I know you probably didn’t even realize what you said, but when you refer to that female leader as ‘aggressive’ it is problematic for me because it has been used to support gender bias. I wonder if a man would be described in the same way.”
- Practice the Platinum Rule. If the Golden Rule is treat others the way you want to be treated, the Platinum Rule is treat others the way they want to be treated. This does NOT mean compromising your identity in any way, rather it means taking the time to ask questions, make observations, and show concern and compassion for the other individual’s needs and expectations. For example, I am accustomed to jumping right into “work” mode when I collaborate. I take some time to ask personal questions of my colleagues and clients, but my default is to get down to business quickly so we don’t “waste” time. However, I realize that, especially with some clients and colleagues, it is imperative that we slow things down, get coffee, talk about our families for a fair bit of time, and THEN get to business. I have to let go of dictating the agenda and allow for a more fluid process in order to build trust and rapport. It sometimes feels uncomfortable for me, but in the long run the results are outstanding.
I find that these norms are essential for me as I take my clients and participants into the challenging space of examining challenging issues around bias, privilege, and inequity.