Co-Authored by Monica Walls and Arthur Combs
On May 29, S&C hosted ~100 participants to learn from three accomplished leaders: Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, Dmitri Belser, and Cynthia Nimmo. We want to thank our panelists for facilitating an excellent discussion.
We’ve summarized 6 highlights of what we learned below.
1. Choose a bias for action. Spend less time dissecting the issue, and more time solving it: It’s important to understand the historical context around discrimination, and it’s important to identify the gaps that exist in your own organization.
But talking and studying won’t solve the problem. Action will. Start by doing something, and continue iterating and adjusting as you go. Learn from others. Own your mistakes, and repair them. Disseminate your lessons broadly.
For example, if you look around and notice that no one on your staff has a disability, identify the barriers and work to remove them. Change your recruiting practices. Raise awareness about the importance of diversity among your team.
For example, if you believe an institution is practicing discrimination with a particular policy, ask them about it. Understand the rules, and why they exist. Then, challenge the rules. Make a compelling case. Be strategic.
2. Make yourself uncomfortable: Ask hard questions like: Why are there so few people of color in this room? Why does no one in my organization identify as LGBTQ? Why doesn’t anyone on my staff have a disability?
Cynthia told a story of her organization — Women’s Funding Network — on a panel they were recently assembling. Someone asked if there were any trans women represented. They realized that there was general underrepresentation among LGBTQ identities in an organization dedicated to representation among all women. They had to humbly acknowledge this shortcoming in the organization’s lens to date. Since then, Women’s Funding Network has recruited board members with LGBTQ identities, and has institutionalized the importance of designating seats at the table for this critical group of women.
Dmitri asked why those in the audience wearing contact lenses may not identify as having a disability. The likely answer: because access to contact lenses is ubiquitous; there is no stigma around wearing contact lenses, as opposed to, say, a wheelchair.
Dmitri then prompted the audience to consider how someone who uses a wheelchair might identify, in a world where the built environment was perfectly designed for wheelchair access.
3. Allocate time and energy to building relationships with people who are different from you: Do the work. Get to know people who are different from yourself, and ask questions — respectfully and at an appropriate time. Understand what it would be like to experience the world with a different gender identity; learn about a new religion and how someone brings their religious values to work; make friends with someone who sees the world differently than you.
Dmitri observed: “As a Jew and a gay man, I have known hate. As a person with a disability, I’ve experienced pity. Of [these] three feelings: hatred, fear, and pity, pity is the most insidious… It is something that is very, very hard to fight back against.”
Valerie shared a reflection of how many people have asked her, as a Native American woman, if she can interpret their dreams.
Misconceptions are dangerous, and strengthening one’s own knowledge and understanding of others is a direct strategy for eliminating them.
4. Engage everyone in the process: For example, failing to include those who have traditionally held the most power in this work, is a strategy for failure. Many straight, white men want equality. Some prefer to retain their power. Work with allies. Persuade, or go around, the men (and women) who prefer things the way they are. Not including roughly half of the population in these efforts will not get us where we need to go.
Valerie reflected: “Those of us in [underrepresented, minority groups] don’t include white males enough in the solutions. And yet, most of the white men in my life want to be involved.”
Valerie was involved in a solutions-oriented initiative that she helped to create at ABC Disney. Emerging directors, with strong representation among women and people of color, were paired with current directors, who were primarily white males. Since the beginning of this program, 900 women and diverse directors have directed shows at ABC Disney.
The key was involving those who held power, and asking them to share their talents with underrepresented groups. The focus here was on action, crafting solutions, achieving the goal of expanding diversity of directors— not on worrying about the historical context for why this is the current state of affairs or training to eliminate unconscious bias.
5. Look to younger generations for help: An audience member urged the group to engage more frequently with younger generations, who, having been raised with more contemporary biases, may serve as an example of how to behave inclusively and without bias or judgment.
Dmitri confirmed this sentiment, sharing a lesson his son taught him in understanding gender identity, and the choices that exist. Dmitri’s son showed him the 50+ choices that Facebook offers for selecting your gender. Younger generations are normalizing diverse identities and are vocal about how acceptable it is. Tune in to this dialogue.
6. Don’t forget about the importance of policy: Valerie reflected on the importance of policy advocacy, even if you hate politics. A single law can change a system and profoundly impact people’s lives, for better or worse. Each of the panelists reflected on the positive impact that policy change can have: for example the recent mandate on board diversity in California, or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which has guaranteed more accessible communities since the 1990s.
This evening of conversation produced several revelations for us, and we hope for the audience as well. We come away with a greater bias for action and some examples of tools that have been successful elsewhere. We know that we barely scratched the surface of these complex, vexing dynamics. For us, this is work we’ll be focusing on throughout our careers.