Eckhart Tolle says that words can cast an almost hypnotic spell on us. “You easily lose yourself in them,” he says, “become hypnotized into implicitly believing that when you have attached a word to something, you know what it is. The fact is: You don’t know what it is. You have only covered up the mystery with a label.”
A stone, a bird, and certainly a human are ultimately unknowable, Tolle says. Each has inherent complexity and unfathomable depth. “All we can perceive, experience, think about, is the surface layer of reality, less than the tip on an iceberg.”
Words like “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” (DEI) represent layers upon layers of other words. Decades of politics and polarization tactics give these words great capacity to, very quickly, cast strong spells on us. It is easy to imagine why companies and communities might give up on DEI initiatives, or why some might think it best not to even begin.
Yet, I’ve seen greater courage and commitment in both public and private sector organizations this year. Awesome DEI approaches are being applied to fit these times in which we find ourselves. By stepping back and embracing complexity, it becomes possible to ask questions that have not been asked before. New solutions emerge.
Organization XYZ began an inclusivity project late last fall. The project’s purpose was to build a language framework and philosophy of inclusion that would guide organization-wide action and set the stage for achieving other strategic priorities.
This couldn’t be just any DEI process, however. The project’s start date almost immediately followed 11/9, the 2016 US presidential election. Many different ideas, identities and issues that come up around equity and inclusion had already become tools of an extreme and extremely effective national polarization strategy. XYZ operates as part of a public sector, and in a large geographic region that includes diverse populations in rural areas and three different cities. XYZ had to navigate the most volatile political divides because its constituents – employees and customers – spanned all of them.
Instead of forming an internal team or assigning a department to define its terms, which are useful and common approaches to this task, XYZ elected to develop its language through a facilitated conversation and community listening program. Diverse XYZ constituents had been pushing for better organization-wide inclusion practices over time. Self-identified conservatives had talked more recently about feeling unwelcome. The conversation and community listening approach was designed to engage everyone, as well as to ensure representation of voices that might not always be heard. No one would be excluded from participating.
An organization-wide team guided the project. In-house facilitators were selected and trained. Group protocol and questions were designed to encourage conversation about meanings and ideas behind certain words, while putting careful boundaries around everyone’s heightened tendencies toward political rhetoric. In the end, more than 275 employees and customers from different backgrounds, cultures, identities and parts of the organization contributed. They offered a heart-stirring glimpse into some of the mystery behind the labels.
Think about your own experiences of being included for a moment and tell us what “inclusivity” means to you.
When people were asked this question, they expressed themselves with extraordinary variety and individuality. They said that inclusivity means:
While some words or phrases – like welcome, respect, freedom, safety, being yourself, openness, acceptance, opportunity and awareness – were repeated, no particular “theme” could be identified. What did link all the responses, no matter the words or the people speaking them, was a sense of fundamental human well-being. Thinking about inclusion brought out the most deeply felt expressions of comfort, contentment, security and well-being across all backgrounds, identities and affiliations.
Likewise, people described impacts of exclusion in the most strongly negative, personal and emotional terms. Some pointed to adverse effects on customer satisfaction and loyalty, employee performance and institutional functioning. Beyond that, though, participants said exclusion creates anxiety, fear, depression and “checking out,” as well as other ills like anger, self-doubt, unnecessary pain, bitterness, shame, “silo-ing,” health declines and withdrawal. Exclusion:
- “Tears down a person.”
- “Can make people feel demeaned, like their purpose is not worth anything.”
- “Can make people make choices that can devastate their hoping.”
- “Affects personal motivation, desire and willingness to be courageous, adventurous, vulnerable and take risks.”
Personal stories about exclusion’s impacts were haunting, and spoke to an extraordinary depth of pain. After one such story, the speaker said, “Exclusivity is devastating to the human soul.”
The Long Way Back to Truth
XYZ’s story is important at this place and time in history. This company took on an ambitious project in an unprecedented environment. Its leadership took a risk, despite circumstances that might suggest extreme caution. It invested deeply in the long haul because it believed in its own mission. XYZ synthesized what it heard into a strong, clear and beautiful statement to help people go below the “tip of the iceberg.” More conversations are planned as XYZ moves into next-step strategies and actions.
There are no shortcuts. But there are bridges.
XYZ may not be able to avoid challenges like having an employee write a biased missive about women in tech, for example. But it may be creating an opportunity to handle these challenges differently. Google fired its employee and perhaps opened itself up to a serious lawsuit. XYZ, just possibly, may have opened a space for critical conversations and teachable moments – for not only the employee, but also the institution as a whole.
In the XYZ project, those pushing for stronger action to protect the disenfranchised worked directly with those who were opposed to what they call special treatment. Each began to hear the “other” and to listen more deeply. Said one participant, “Conversations create community.” And solid community, based on shared understanding of a shared humanity, is the best antidote to hate and harm.
No single intervention can do it all. Some challenge the viability of DEI to address the most pressing problems of white supremacy, institutional privilege, environmental degradation and hate. As well we should. As a country, we may finally be coming to see the potentially fatal fault lines of a democracy built on four hundred years of powerful racial framing and its active exploitation by a powerful ruling elite. DEI efforts cannot do everything, but they can be a tool by which we refashion times of acute despair into opportunities for befriending life, one another and ourselves.
Public and private sector organizations can make a difference. And it takes work. Sometimes it takes a different paradigm – for example, a concerted effort of asking and listening, hearing and acting. Upon hearing constituents, inside and out, web-hosting companies have removed white supremacist sites, resort centers have canceled white supremacist conferences and other actions are being taken daily. When we build real community on real understanding, it becomes possible for individuals and institutions to draw real lines when they must be drawn.
XYZ’s people remind us of the greatest truth of all. That is, our hearts are the same. We all long for peace. For love. We want to be connected.
And, in fact, we are. Under the iceberg, under the surface appearance, Tolle concludes, “everything is not only connected with everything else, but also with the Source of all life out of which it came.” Ultimately, what we do to the other, we do to ourselves. When we listen beyond the words and focus on the unfathomable depth behind them, we come to understand this.
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 her, too. Jody builds her own knowledge and accountability by working and leading with people whose lived experience is most affected by white privilege.
 Tolle, E. 2005. A New Earth: Awakening to Your life’s Purpose. Penguin: New York. p.25.
 “XYZ” represents an organization whose project is described here with permission but anonymously.
 Feagin, Joe. 2013. The White Racial Frame. Routledge: New York. Ch. 3.
 Adapted from Maria Popova, quoting Tibetan monk Pema Chödrön, in Brain Pickings, 072317.
 Personal communication, GoDaddy.com, 081517.
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/01/26/a-resort-canceled-a-white-nationalist-groups-first-ever-conference-because-of-its-views/?utm_term=.526feff299bc and http://www.kktv.com/content/news/Mayor-Suthers-responds-to-planned-VDARE-conference-in-Colorado-Springs-440537563.html, accessed 081617.
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