Who’s not here? Diversity in community

A couple of weeks ago, Kristina @Halvorson raised a twitter-storm over e-zines and conferences that feature white men exclusively. In their defense, and judging from their apology, I think probably they didn’t plan to exclude women (or other perspectives). It probably somehow just sort of happened that way. They wanted to feature the best, most interesting figures they could, and those just seemed to end up white guys.

This sort of thing—that white men show up at the head firms, on the attendee lists, on the presentation line-up, on the bookshelves—happens all the time, and I believe it is, as @halvorson and others have said, an issue of diversity and inclusion. I am stepping off of the topic of content strategy for this post because I have some experience in being part of diverse community, and because I believe it absolutely essential that our community—that any community—learn what diversity and inclusion mean, why they’re important, and how to nourish them.

Something about my background

When I was in college, I studied French in Tours, France, which taught me first-hand about culture shock and the power of learning to live in someone else’s culture. I recommend this experience to every human being for gaining perspective on one’s own culture: You cannot understand yourself until you understand someone else. You can only understand being in the “majority” when you have experienced being in the “minority.”

I began facilitating “diversity workshops” back in the 90s, when I was an Employee Relations Rep in Rochester, NY. If you work for a corporation, you’ve probably been through a hundred versions of such workshops. They generally include activities and information to highlight several, important truths:

  1. Diversity is not exclusively about women and African Americans, nor about Equal Employment Opportunity laws, although it does indeed address these aspects, but encompasses all the ways in which people differ from one another.
  2. We all bring our biases, which are largely invisible to us, to new encounters with people who differ from us. We tend to trust and therefore favor those who are most like us and to have different expectations (often higher) of those who are least like us.
  3. Diversity is not about tokenism or being politically correct. We cannot point to one person of color in a room full of white people and say, “See? We’re not all white.” Nor can we learn the “right way” to talk about things, so that the issue goes away. Diversity is about seeing lots of people of all kinds in the group, and learning to talk with them (more than about them) in terms that they choose for themselves.
  4. We are all complex and multifaceted, and the goal of “diversity” is to create a working environment in which everyone can contribute her/his best work, which is known as “inclusion.”
  5. Diverse teams are harder to manage, but they produce better work.
  6. Stereotypes are not the same thing as generalizations. It’s all in how you use them. “Stereotypes” reduce people to a few characteristics, so that we don’t have to go any deeper to understand them, while “generalizations” identify characteristics as guides for understanding differences.

When I worked for Ernst & Young, my last project was managing the development of an online course in cross-cultural communication, which really is just another form of diversity education.

When my partner moved from Tuscaloosa to Cleveland to be with me—from the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama to the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio—we were, I believe, the first gay couple to be invited to the “new clergy weekend” at the time, and we have been open in the diocese from the beginning.

Since 2000, my partner, an Episcopal priest, has been working with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which ten years after our start, has grown into a vibrant and fully diverse Christian community, and its growth continues to accelerate. We attribute our diversity, and how we live into it, as one primary driver of that growth.

What we mean by “diversity” and “inclusion”

“Diversity” and “inclusion” are often spoken together, especially in business organizations. One could get the impression that they’re the same thing, but there are important distinctions. Diversity is a prerequisite for inclusion because an organization can be diverse without being at all inclusive. Diversity is hard, and inclusion harder.

Diversity: Who’s here, and who isn’t?

Diversity is about the composition of your community. A homogenous community is made up people who are all very much alike in important respects. A homogenous community is comfortable because its members can communicate with one another without a lot of misunderstanding borne of differences. Of course, no community can be completely “homogenous,” as every human being is unique, but the more homogenous the community, the harder it is for its members to have perspective on their own identity, their own biases, and their own values.

Inclusion: Who holds the power?

Even in diverse communities, it may be similar people who make the decisions, who enjoy prestige, who are chosen for leadership, or who feel most a part of the group, even when they are not the most numerous in the group. “Majority” isn’t always about quantity, but it’s always about influence. It is the “majority” culture that prevails in the seats of power, wealth, and influence, whether the people in those seats represent a majority of the population.

Inclusion is about the diversity of those who hold the power and esteem in the community. This distinction is critical and germaine to the conversation on Twitter because while a community must first tell itself the truth about its basic composition (who’s not here), it can only benefit from diversity if it can tell the truth about its inclusiveness.

Questions to assess inclusive diversity

I don’t believe that communities achieve real, inclusive diversity very often, nor that inclusive diversity just “happens” to a community. Inclusive diversity requires intention and care. Inclusive diversity requires learning to live in new ways. And inclusive diversity requires doing things that don’t seem logical, in order to get it started and let it take root.

Here are a few questions that can help us get outside our own perspective to begin the journey.

Who’s here?

A community must actively nurture diversity by learning to see “absence.” When a community is homogenous, it seems perfectly normal to recognize one another. Seeing who’s not here requires tuning into the humanity missing from your group. It’s easiest to begin with sex, color, and other outwardly visible characteristics. Are we all men? Are we all white? Are we all about the same age? Are we all straight? Do we all dress alike?

It’s important, however, to move quickly into deeper realms of difference. Do we live and work in major metropolises? Do we live in the same kinds of neighborhoods? Do we use the same slang? Do all have similar education from similar institutions?

Once we’ve built a sense of who’s not “in the room,” we can begin to explore the impact of homogeneity by assessing who holds the power.

Whose voice is heard?

Another way to assess the diversity of a community is to look at who’s authoring the books and articles that people get to read, who’s invited to present at conferences, whose names are most recognized, and who shapes the opinions throughout the community. If the people who get to hold the microphone are all alike in some way, then the community is deprived of new voices, different voices, dissenting voices, and perhaps startling voices.

Who’s making money?

I hesitate—almost—to say it, but the competitive spirit of business is probably in direct conflict with inclusion.

Capitalism generally values getting the business by beating out other people who could have it. But when a particular kind of person seems to hold the microphone, to get the business, to publish the books, and to make the innovations, one must as a matter of conscious suspect that other factors are at work in addition to those folks’ innate intelligence and their hard work.

Becoming an inclusive community requires a conscious effort to “make space” for people who are absent. That means sometimes standing aside on the platform, on the shelf, in leadership, and if we’re very committed to it, in business. Many organizations are working to make space under the banner of “supplier diversity,” signaling that they are willing to give special consideration to bids from minority-owned businesses. In order to ensure that minority-owned business get a fair shot, (and I won’t go into what constitutes a “fair shot” here), the organizations must ensure that they are somewhere in the pool of bidders.

Who leads?

But there’s more. Inclusion means working to share authority and power. Diversity in leadership is at least as important as diversity in membership, and at a certain point, it’s important for leadership to “turn over,” and for different sorts of people to lead. If you look at the agency partners, if you look at the elected government, if you look at the C-Suite, and they’re all white guys—except for the HR director, who’s a woman, and the diversity officer, who’s African American—then there is a lot of work to do. Those who hold the power to promote must not allow themselves to fall into the “we’re just hiring the best person for the job” trap. As above, if all the “best” candidates seem to look alike, then there’s something else going on.

So what? Why should we worry about any of this?

The decision to work toward diversity and inclusion in any community is hard, and the journey is fraught with change. After all, the goal of diversity and inclusion is not just to look different for its own sake, but to be changed, and no one likes that. To become a diverse and inclusive community means that we will all be changed in ways that we cannot predict or control, and certainly, no one likes that. But we must.

Diversity is safer

When you watch catastrophes of society or economy unfold, look for sameness in those at the epicenter. Homogenous groups are prone to look inward and to agree on decisions quickly. They can overlook things that lead into crisis. In diverse communities, we have to learn to accommodate different points of view and work to involve more people in decisions, which are powerful, crisis-preventing skills. Over time, we all develop broader perspectives—on ourselves, as well as on others. Diversity is safer because we learn to look more outside our own interests for the good of the community.

Diversity is richer

When the people of influence are all alike, in the end they can fall into the trap of thinking that they’ve learned all they can from others. Inclusive diversity ensures that no matter how much you learn, there’s always someone new who’s going to shake things up and make you revise your whole picture, which is great, once you get the hang of it. In a community that prizes experts, this can be especially disconcerting, and we don’t generally have the skills to say, “You know, I now have to reconsider everything I’ve ever believed about this…” But that’s the way forward. We always need new voices of widely different perspectives, so that together, we get to a greater truth.

Diversity is good

In the end, I believe that the greatest good for all of humanity can only be achieved through diversity. As we come more and more into contact with people who differ most from us, we need to have built the skills to make space for them in our own circles: listening, questioning, welcoming, and changing.

So yes, we need to consider seriously who’s on our brochures. We need to consider whose voices we’re hearing. We need to pay money to see and hear people we’ve never heard of. We need to decide to bring new perspectives into our workplaces. And we need to make space for others to stand beside us. It’s hard, but it’s the only way to the best.