Diversity and inclusion needs to be less about teaching, and more about listening.

Several months ago, I attended a Diversity and Inclusion workshop in Washington, DC. While I had been to a host of corporate Diversity and Inclusion trainings in my time, this was the first community-driven event I had attended. I was excited for the opportunity to engage in real, honest conversation on the topic.

To its credit, the event was more in-depth than trainings I had attended in the past. It included explorations of history and analyses of how we perceive past events. The instructor was passionate on the topic. He had done extensive work in developing frameworks for understanding discrimination and combating it within communities. Much of the workshop was devoted to teaching this somewhat dense, though interesting material and methodology.

However, it was still lacking something. I believe events like these are unable to “bridge divides” for the following reasons:

  • They often approach the topic of diversity from an intellectual or pedantic standpoint but fail to include “heart” , stories, and feelings.
  • They can prescribe a policy or process without inviting feedback, resulting in fear and resentment.
  • Although claiming to be about diversity and inclusion, they can glorify one side of an issue and vilify the other, leaving some attendees feeling outcasted.
  • They can fail in the definition of diversity beyond race and gender or they can fail to include the diverse spectrum of experiences beyond Black and White.

The Need for Storytelling

Most diversity trainings can easily become preachy, “how to” lessons that fail to get to the root of the problem. Because getting to the root is messy, awkward, and uncomfortable, and it takes longer than a few hours. The problem with any of these “methodologies”  is that they are prescriptive without being empathetic.

What I remember feeling in this particular diversity training was a deep longing to see and be seen. While there was quite a bit of interaction in the room, it all felt very intellectual and abstract. I longed to actually share experiences and stories – not just ideas and analyses. I longed to feel: feel others’ pain through their stories, and share my own.

And I didn’t only want to hear stories of people who experienced the discrimination. I wanted to hear stories from the people who have done the discriminating, to try to understand. I wanted to understand all of the perspectives in the room. Basically, I longed for a sense of connection.

Yes, I know it might sound idealistic. But D&I is one of those things in the workplace that requires this kind of “soft skills” approach to actually have impact. It requires seeing with both the mind and the heart, it requires developing our capacity for empathy. This way of seeing has helped me be more successful in collaborations at work and in my personal life.

Why Formal Learning Often Fails

Growing up, I remember sitting in History and Social Studies classes in school. I used to dread these classes— I found them utterly boring. I’d quickly tune out and daydream throughout the entire class about my latest crush at school, or something else.

Isn’t that unfortunate? I don’t think I was alone in that. There would be crickets anytime the teacher would ask the classroom a question.

I believe it’s because the way these classes were taught felt irrelevant to my modern life. During my most formative years, I was encouraged to memorize information, rather than to critically think about how the gruesome past has impacted my present. Because that is a conversation that is messier and can get out of an instructor’s control. But maybe that’s part of the problem.

Formal learning is traditionally a one-way process: watch this e-learning, listen to this instructor, do these exercises, answer this multiple choice quiz. And yet in fact, it is through real-life experience and stories that people are truly activated to create change – to act on what they learn.

If there is one thing recent tragedies have brought to light for many Americans, it is how little we may know or retain of the country’s brutal history. Until the real-life story of George Floyd took place, I understood the history of slavery theoretically and intellectually. I knew it had happened, but I didn’t give it much thought or even deeply try to understand its structural bases. In the last couple weeks, I have read countless books and had countless discussions on the topic, expanding my awareness and empathy to new depths.

But we don’t need national tragedies like this to happen to create change in our organizations. Rather, perhaps the approach for corporate diversity and inclusion needs to be less about teaching, and more about listening. Allowing space for sharing real life experiences and stories to be shared so that empathy and deep understanding can develop, rather than simply imposing policies and practices and abstract ideas of “right” and “wrong”.

D&I is a Journey for Both the Workplace and the Individual

Too often, D&I is treated as a black and white issue within companies(no pun intended): there is the “right” way and the “wrong” way. Policies and processes are often punitive and fear-inducing, rather than tolerant and empathetic.

There is no magic methodology that, if implemented everywhere, will solve D&I challenges in workplaces. D&I seems to be less of a goal and more of a collective process, a journey – for the organization and for each individual. A collaborative exploration and a challenging of our own assumptions and biases at each moment – no matter how “woke” we may each think we are.

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