I find myself talking more frequently these days about challenges with the word inclusion. This is a bit awkward, since the word is integral to my work.
Inclusion’s Bare Naked Underbelly
Inclusion is the act of making someone or something part of a whole, of embracing or allowing people into a group. Inclusiveness is a set of behaviors that welcome and value people for who they are and the contributions they bring. All good, except … doesn’t this imply that one group gets to invite or include, and another group waits to be deemed includable?
We know how that has worked. People who’ve been in the majority, in power, decide who gets included. And, historically, those people are white.*
Whiteness not only influences who gets included. It influences what we think of as normal or desirable. Whiteness is largely invisible. It is built into our institutions and systems, and we absorb the values of whiteness unconsciously, whether we are white or not. Beyond the adverse effects this has on us as individuals, it also perpetuates systems of privilege and oppression.
To achieve real change, we must go beyond inclusion to accountability.
You hear a lot about accountability, especially in work settings. Accountability is sometimes used interchangeably with the word responsibility, which means being dependable. But being accountable actually comes first. It is how dependability is demonstrated. Accountability carries an expectation of account-giving. It is about being answerable to others.
Accountability means making clear agreements about what’s expected and about what happens as a result of actions we do or do not take. Within these agreements:
- Behavioral expectations need to be well defined and specific.
- People must have adequate resources and skills to accomplish what’s desired or required of them.
- Definitions and measures of success have to actually relate to the thing we say we are trying to do.
- Consequences, positive ones when we meet agreements and others when we fall short, are needed to ensure credibility and follow-through.
From Inclusion to Accountability
The work of equity and inclusion requires a certain type of accountability agreement. That is, making a commitment to behave in a specific and intentional way; to challenge the status quo and dismantle systemic privilege.
Everyone comes to this work (which goes by many names) with different levels of comfort, knowledge and ability to translate concepts into action. Therefore, people need a way to start where they are individually and their build their resources and skills from there.
Using the ideas of Lila Cabbil, president emeritus of the Rosa Parks Institute, a team at the annual White Privilege Conference has been working to bring attention to issues of accountability and to illuminate different paths to action. This team has described three levels of accountability. The personal level refers to actions we take as individuals. The organizational level includes those things we do with others as a group, community or organization. The systemic level involves coordinated action over time to create institutional and systems change.
Wherever one starts, however, accountability agreements require listening to the needs, ideas and solutions of people with the lived experience. This is particularly important for those who come to this work from a position of privilege.
Many white people approach the work with what Lila has called the “missionary syndrome.” By this, she means that white people come in with the good intention of “saving” a group or a community by doing what they think is best. But this approach is not based in agreement. It is rooted in hierarchy and the status quo. Results, if any, are often fleeting and may be irrelevant to those they are supposed to serve.
The shift that needs to happen is one of role and relationship. It is a shift from “doing to” or “doing for” to doing with. Accountability in this context means we shift the approach from bringing different people into existing systems to one of building partnerships and new systems, where those who know from lived experience can say, “This is what is needed,” or “This is what will work,” and “This is what success looks like.” Where there is an authentic bond and shared power and leadership, there will be different outcomes. Those outcomes will be more effective, relevant, lasting – and mutual.
Inclusion Means Dismantling Systems that Exclude
I am not ready to give up the word inclusion. The idea is generally accepted to mean engaging everyone in shared endeavors, and working better together. It is the opposite of exclusion. Organizational inclusion has its place as long as it goes hand-in-glove with accountability, with a commitment to behave in an intentional way to bring about equity. With accountability, full inclusion and full participation are made real.
* And, in the US, largely male, straight, cis, wealthy and Christian. But we will stick with race for purposes of this discussion.
Jody Alyn works with organizations that want to bridge gaps, solve complex problems and seriously improve results. Unlearning whiteness, and white supremacy, is a lifelong process for Jody, too. She builds her own knowledge and accountability by working with people whose experience is most affected by white privilege. In particular, relationships with Lila Cabbil; WPC Founder and Executive Director, Eddie Moore, and the 2015 WPC accountability team co-chair, Vanessa Roberts, have informed this work. Jody has co-chaired the accountability initiative for the White Privilege Conference (WPC) for the past three years. In 2016, 2900 people from all over the US and from other nations attended WPC.
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