Reflections on Inclusion

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Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Early in my journey to develop a series on inclusion, I was asked by a prominent figure what data would be collected to prove the effort successful. As a wildlife biologist and scientist, I appreciate data. While in the archery industry, I was involved in almost every survey put out and enjoyed pouring over the results. But I explained that we would not have data that could provide a full picture of success for this series. He was not buying my arguments.

Now that I’ve been involved in this work for over a year, I have a better sense of how data points do not provide full context. This blog is meant to provide additional context to the challenges of providing “successful” workshops on the topic of inclusion.

Let’s start with the end

One of the questions asked at the end of the series is, what could you have done to make this series better? This question comes from a Lean-In Circle in which I participated a few years ago and was the first question asked at the end of each circle. I love that it forces the participant to look inward before judging others in any evaluation. It is a way to practice a little humility and help people realize their role in the workshop’s success.

I start with this because the success of the program is dependent on how people show up. Over the course of this series, people admitted they did not commit fully. Below is a sprinkling of comments provided. 

Participants recognized that they could have –

✤ Participated more bravely
✤ Spoken less, listened more
✤ Been less apprehensive about speaking up, be more vulnerable
✤ Been more open to difficult conversations
✤ Come with more real-life examples
✤ Been more present
✤ Been less guarded about answers on the difficult stuff
✤ Read more of the book
✤ Been more thoughtful between sessions

This series simply warms people up to the work. We often hear during each session’s post review that “we could have used more time on X, Y or Z.” I agree that would be nice. As a designer and facilitator, I also know that if we made this series longer, we would not get a commitment to it. Eight hours over four weeks is already a struggle. I try to point out that they do not need me or another facilitator to continue the work. If an engaging topic thread is identified, I encourage organizers to continue that conversation between sessions. In adaptive leadership terms, I “give the work back.” On a couple of occasions, the group has accepted the challenge. Usually, though, they rely on the facilitators to do the work. That is not my work to do.

How things start is how they go

Three areas of context are missing in anonymous reviews of this program.

  1. Developing the participant list

One major piece of data missing from evaluations of this series is how participants were determined. I think of three possibilities: volunteered, “voluntold,” and mandated. As an attendee, I rarely came into a mandated training fully present and open-minded. I was resistant to taking in the information for assorted reasons. In this inclusion series, we know that some people were mandated to attend because that is how they responded to the question, “why are you here?” As a facilitator, all I can do is hope I say or do something to bring that person along. I surely cannot expect full participation. I know because that has been me. Yet this one piece of data could change the outcome of the series immensely.

2. Psychological safety of the group

There is little way to know the level of psychological safety present in each group. Prior to the series start, we ask, “what is your greatest fear about this work?” While those answers give us a sense of the fears we will have to acknowledge during the session, they do not clarify if participants can talk about those fears in the workplace.

As the primary developer of this series, I designed for psychological safety to expand over time. I also intentionally insert some vulnerability of my own, to demonstrate that this work is everyone’s work. From participant and co-facilitator conversations over this past year, it seems that some of the groups who participated had a lower level of psychological safety.

Finally, the authority figures play a role here. We do not know how participants perceive an authority figure who speaks immediately or one who takes a more observing role. Often, all levels of supervision are present in this work. I recall one session where an authority figure got frustrated by the lack of action and later blamed facilitators and participants but did not put up a mirror to their own behavior. There is not a concrete way to factor the presence and behavior of authority into evaluation.

3. Daily wellbeing check-in

At the start of each session, there is a check-in question. On a scale of 1-10, with one being “I could use some help” and 10 being “I’m well, thank you!” how are you feeling today? Inevitably, people check in all over the board. The group rarely all checks in above 7, which is what I would consider at or near the capacity to deeply learn. So, even in each individual session, people are going to come in with only a partial ability to stay present. I tell them to grant compassion for themselves during the session. I let them know it is possible they will not take the information in, or they may be more quickly triggered. Sometimes they grant this same compassion to me and sometimes they do not.

I go back to this check-in as I review feedback. The lower the general scale of participants, the less likely I will take super harsh comments seriously. How the session goes is relative to how the group checked in at the beginning of the session. Individual wellbeing is playing a role here, even though it cannot be directly connected to the sessions.

Inclusion starts with “I”

Throughout the series, participants are reminded to focus inclusion work on “I” and what each individual can do. In the end, we also ask, What have you learned about yourself in this series? Here is another sprinkling of comments.

✤ Awareness of unconscious bias and that I have them.
✤ I need to work at helping staff feel they belong and are included.
✤ I must dedicate more time to this.
✤ Recognized different tailwinds, been unaware of other “headwinds.”
✤ Lessons learned early made a significant impact and shaped who I am today.
✤ I am not as good as I thought I was at this stuff.
✤ More comfortable than I thought I would be in this work.
✤ More frustrated with the status quo than I realized.
✤ We often think we are too busy to do this work.

As expected, some of the participants respond with answers that have nothing to do with the question. I know how hard it can be to look inside.

Between the third and final sessions, participants submit a list of three actions they can take to be more inclusive. Inevitably, actions come up that are extremely difficult to measure, such as being more open-minded, listening more actively, and being more empathetic. Participants likely have full intention of practicing these things, but there is no way to know the impact of this series on those practices.

To demonstrate how easy it is to put the topic of inclusion aside, participants are asked at the end of session three what they will do to commit to being more inclusive the rest of their day. Then, when they arrive at session four, they are asked how well they did with their intentions. The scores usually come back mid to low. When we ask for the reasons they did not follow through, they say things like:

☛ Work got in the way.
☛ The opportunity did not present itself.
☛ Distractions from other responsibilities.
☛ Unsure where to start.
☛ Fear.

People do not like to have this pointed out, but these reasons come from a very privileged place of being. Depending on the group, sometimes this statement comes out. But, once again, there is no way to measure individual commitment to this work.

So, what does success look like then?

One of the outcomes we have listed is to challenge our ways of thinking. For me, success includes stories of a-ha moments during the sessions. Here are a few:

⭐ A participant who presented a spirituality different from the dominant Christianity and the other participants rallying around her being vulnerable.
⭐ A neuro-diverse participant finding the courage to “come out” for the first time at work.
⭐ A marginalized participant who uses initials for a name and participants realizing that to fit in the name needed to be “Americanized.”
⭐ An entire division realizes they do not feel very included in the bigger realm of the agency.
⭐ Many realized for the first time how much impact their early childhood exclusion experiences had on the way they experience life now.
⭐Law enforcement officers realize that exclusion feels like every time they meet a group of outdoor recreationists and are immediately given a grimace when they have not even met yet.

We spend time in reflection during sessions two, three, and four. We do not document these stories, nor do we rate the impact on each other. Sometimes participants are prompted to name a moment from the previous session that struck them. Or we invite them to respond with what has come to their awareness since the last session. Sometimes my co-facilitator and I will come prepared to pull a topic thread, but we focus first on letting participants bring their thoughts to the room. Sometimes participants say they needed more time in this reflection, and other times, participants are not as engaged. When some story has an associated action, I have learned to draw attention to the fact that they can act after the series. In adaptive leadership, this is how to “give the work back,” and I am getting better at it. I do sometimes sense hostility in pushing it back rather than bringing it in, and I accept that in my role as the facilitator.

The most successful series are those where participants really commit to the work and end the series with an extensive list of immediately actionable items. In one of the series, two main authority figures were present and ended the session with full authority to move forward on some incredibly challenging actions. That was satisfying for me as a facilitator and what I want for all these series. Whether or not they follow through on those actions cannot factor into the success of this series. All we can hope for is that participants are thinking more broadly about inclusion.

Evolution continues

I feel immensely proud of the series now a full year into this work. Some significant changes were made after the pilot session that helped us get closer to action items at the end. Our push toward using “I” came to reduce the chances of work avoidance by saying “we” or “the agency.” Following that second session, the series still evolves but with more minor tweaks. In the end, no two sessions will ever be the same because they each take place in the various contexts I mention above.

One of my remaining frustrations in this work has to do with those who claim to be committed to diversity and inclusion work but when I bring a microaggression to awareness, they quickly avoid, shut the conversation down, or turn their aggression toward me. I continue to unpack my own triggers in this work and how I can show compassion to others not ready to fully leap. Sometimes, I must let go and realize that the time is not right.

As a result of this work, my awareness is growing, and my actions are more intentional and courageous. I am also imperfect, so some of my own interventions have not gone well. I am frequently reminded by some trusted advisors that many are not ready for the kind of growth I pursue.

I have written blogs inspired by this work including Inclusion Starts with “I,” Workshop Expectations and Learning, and Meritocracy and Worthiness in Conservation. I am certain there is more to come, and I continue my own evolution towards greater inclusion.

The challenge to remain motivated

This is some of the most exhausting and challenging work I have done. I have experienced times of re-trauma from past experiences through gaslighting, personal attacks, and rumors. I am mindful of how other stories of exclusion can create an experience of re-trauma too. I have practices to keep me grounded. I also have a small group of colleagues and friends who provide honest feedback and insight with deep compassion.

Recently, I received a Service to Chapter award for my work on diversity, equity, and inclusion from the Minnesota Chapter of The Wildlife Society. I am so honored to receive the award and to be part of such a forward-thinking chapter. They motivated me to pursue much of the work I do around self-care and team wellness in the field. As a result of this chapter, I also published two articles in The Wildlife Professional on the topics to get more information out to the profession. I keep this award on my desk as a reminder to keep going when days are difficult. They inspire me.

A thank you gift and card I received from session leaders and participants in one of the series is my most cherished piece of this work. The statement that is most meaningful to me is “I admire and wonder at the combination of vulnerability and bravery it takes to reveal yourself in the ways you do to a crowd of judgmental strangers.” I do my best to show up fully, knowing that I could be condemned so to have someone acknowledge that means everything to me.

For information on this series on Inclusion, contact me at michelle@anavahconsulting.com.

Tags: #diversity and inclusion #inclusion
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