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From Giving-Thanks to Giving-Space

By Shannon Lee.
Executive Director, Leadership Columbus

Amita rushed out the door, hoping to make it on time. The nine o’clock staff meeting was about to begin, and she had precisely twenty-three minutes to get to the office. I sometimes miss quarantine traffic, she mused to herself. Remembering to stay present, Amita noticed the leaves’ subtle shift in hue, a sign of the times. Fall. These colorful trees seem late like me today. I suppose lateness isn’t ugly after all. It just is, like the seasons.

Amita is a 29-year-old woman, married and thinking of having kids someday. Her father back home reminds her often of what a blessing they are. I have my doubts. I cannot imagine this morning rush with a kid in tow, not to mention childcare and diapers. She is a new manager with zero training on how to manage but here goes nothing, right? Her mouth flashes a forced, toothy grin in the rear-view mirror, and she chuckles.

She likes her company. Their pay is pretty good, much better than the last place. Everyone is friendly enough, even though they still don’t ask her where she’s from or what she likes. Oh well, maybe that will happen later. It’s only been a few weeks; she resigns once again with a sigh. However, she is feeling somewhat on edge today. First, this is a new job; she started just three weeks ago, and second, it is the beginning of the holiday season. In previous employment experiences, this time of year was nothing short of a one-sided celebration focused on Thanksgiving and Christmas only. While Amita has nothing against those celebrations, they have no relevance to her experience. At all.

Amita was born in India and came to the United States, where she eventually attended college. There, she met her husband, who is also from India. They are both Hindu and celebrate Diwali; however, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jain people from India, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Fiji celebrate Diwali. They all celebrate it in different ways. It is prevalent for families to gather from many places during the five days of Diwali to celebrate together. And while Amita and her family celebrate Diwali in their own way here in the states, they maintain the spirit of this 5-day festival: the victory of good over evil and a time of introspection and new beginnings.

Amita knows Diwali isn’t part of the dominant culture in America (at least not in marketing on TV), so she doesn’t necessarily expect to see a massive representation of her culture’s celebration at work. I mean, they probably don’t even know she celebrates it, right? I am not going to just tell them; that feels super awkward!

Plus, she doesn’t want to feel singled out; she doesn’t want to be “that person” asking for a special request. And so, the experience Amita describes above continues for her and so many others.

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So, what’s the solution? How can workplaces move beyond centering only the predominant culture to being more inclusive? How can we give more space to a broader range of holiday experiences over the next few months and maybe even year-round? And what keeps us stuck and keeps us from change? I’ll address the latter first.

I believe we are stuck and remain unchanged for three reasons:

  1. Ignorance and sometimes willful ignorance. We may not realize the people at our workplaces feel weird asking their cultures to be represented. And you know what? They really shouldn’t need to ask. (I’ll address this later in some recommendations further down.) So please do not assume every person on your team or in your company celebrate the traditional American and/or Christian holidays, even if they are white or white-passing. Also, I believe willful ignorance exists in some places where supervisors and leaders are asked to address these issues of lack of inclusivity, and these requests are ignored. Once you have been asked or told and refuse to do the work to learn, you are willfully ignorant—hard stop.
  2. The attempted change isn’t feasible. According to Forbes (May 24, 2019, The Fastest Way To Change A Culture), 96% of companies plan to redesign the way they work, and only 37% will succeed. One of the reasons for this low success rate is the change being enacted is not desirable or feasible because leadership didn’t make it ‘sticky.’ In other words, don’t overcomplicate things! Make simple, attainable changes. Humans are habitual. Habits are hard to break. You don’t need to make this more complicated than it needs to be. I think so many white folks believe being inclusive is some considerable undertaking, and it simply is not. It’s a beautiful endeavor. Again, see below for ideas!
  3. Priorities aren’t set and maintained by leadership. This is the adage; you must practice what you preach, leaders. Leaders of organizations, teams, etc., must set the tone. I expect our staff at Leadership Columbus to show up fulfilling their responsibilities at 90%. No one is perfect. They get to mess up. They also get to repair when they mess up. I get to mess up, and I fix that mess when I fall short as well. That’s a priority set by and maintained by me. When it comes to matters of inclusion, leadership must set the tone; however, when it comes to inclusion, they must do so with the input of others.

We are in the middle of a complete overhaul of our employee handbook. After attending a workshop on equitable employee handbooks, I realized our employee handbook could use some updating. I found multiple areas where we could be more equitable and inclusive in our employment practices, and one of the areas needing to be addressed was around holidays. Based on that experience and a bit more research, I’m making some recommendations on how you can make this holiday season more culturally responsive and inclusive for your folks too.

  • Ask. And you don’t need to make it weird. Just have a staff meeting and ask for ideas for your team. Ask them what holiday celebrations (if any) would make them feel included in the workplace. You may learn your team feels more comfortable doing nothing! Who knows? Or they may want to each bring something that represents their traditions. What’s important is to ask and include your team in the discussion. Some examples of questions you can ask might be:
    • What holidays would they like to see recognized in the office?
    • What cultural celebrations are essential to them?
    • Are there things they want you to know about those holidays?
    • Do they want decorations? What kind? Who will supply what items? (Consider ahead of time if the company will provide a budget for this and communicate that. If no budget, then consider the impact this might have on employees who can’t afford to buy items. It might be better not to have individuals purchase decorations in that case – this would not be equitable.)
    • Food? Would they like to have a potluck representing different food traditions? Then, again, decide if there’s a budget to pay for this expense.
  • Avoid appropriation. For example, if there are no Hindus in your organization, having a Diwali party to wear Indian clothes and eat Indian food without paying homage to the holiday is cultural appropriation.
  • Avoid westernizing holidays. This can take the form of combining a traditional holiday from another culture with an American holiday. Some may think it is cute or clever. Still, these holidays carry deep cultural and religious meaning for many communities worldwide and westernizing them can be very hurtful and disrespectful to the traditional holiday.
  • Provide floating holidays. This is particularly helpful when you have a lot of holidays represented on your staff. This allows for maximum flexibility for folks who celebrate various holidays worldwide that may not be on your standard paid holiday calendar. This was one of the changes we added here at Leadership Columbus.
  • Provide pro-rata paid holidays for part-time staff. One of the findings in the equitable handbooks training I attended was that very few employers provide paid PTO or paid vacations for part-time employees. One of the ways to make this equitable is to simply provide it on a pro-rata basis. This made a lot of sense to our board and me, so we changed it immediately. If your organization can make this change, I strongly urge you to do so.
  • Celebrate various heritages monthly. Almost every month of the year focuses on a different heritage. This site lists them and provides an excellent description for each. By the way, November is National American Indian Heritage Month!
  • Learn about other cultural celebrations. All year long, there are different ways to celebrate at the office: Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Autism Awareness Month, Juneteenth. The list goes on and on. A quick Google search, and you can find something just about every month of the year to celebrate. And if you’re unsure how to celebrate appropriately, Google is suitable for that too.

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By some miracle, Amita arrives at the staff meeting right on time. Her boss, Donna, comes in and passes around pads of post-it notes. This is odd. Donna asked each team member to write down how they’d like to see the company celebrate cultures, traditions, and heritages year-round at the company, putting each idea on a separate post-it note.

One by one, team members brought their ideas to the front and eventually grouped them by common themes until they had a wall of post-it notes organized by topics and time of year.  Amita was amazed and excited by the process. She made sure to include ideas around Diwali, and other cultural celebrations she felt should be built-in at different times of the year. It was all very life-giving, easy, and fun. And even though a few people were tentative about the changes from celebrating only Thanksgiving and Christmas as they had in the past, they seemed eager to learn about the other traditions. Donna created space for more inclusion and did so in a simple, effective way.

Amita looks forward to seeing how she experiences this holiday season in a whole new way at work.

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I hope this fictional story and related recommendations provide simple, actionable ways you can be more culturally responsive over the holiday season. I hope you are grateful this month. I do. And I hope you demonstrate that by being culturally responsive to the folks around you. This act makes more room at the table every single day. If you have ideas on more ways to do these types of things, shoot me a note at shannonlee@columbus.org. I’d love to hear from you!

Championing LGBTQ+ Voices: What Does It Mean and Where Do We Start?

By Karen Hewitt, M. Ed.
Pronouns: Ze/Hir/Hirs and She/Her/Hers
Associate Director, Leadership Columbus

I happened to have a few moments to spend on Twitter, and I saw the question going around, “when did you have your first Black male teacher?”  I fondly thought of my 3rd-grade music teacher and then started posing this question to myself around all my unique intersections.  I was trying to see something. The list of names and representatives was not long. I started to think of the first Black Women I saw in the classroom, the media, creatively, and business. The names became fewer and fewer as I moved through categories based on the type of category, profession, and genre.

I was socialized into the narrative that available careers for me were: administration, teaching, care-taking, nursing, and if I was lucky enough and talented enough, maybe I could sing or be in the arts.  The household names of Black people ‘making it’ were common in all Black households. We all had similar favorite shows and movies, where Black and Brown actors were hopefully playing parts.  Even if only for a few moments in one scene.  The idea of having a ‘good job’ or ‘making it’ was related to specific jobs. Those jobs were as a postal worker, working for the city or government, or a job where you could be eligible for retirement and pension. You know, the jobs that made it possible to buy a home prevented living check to check and allowed you to purchase brand name clothes. 

Admittedly, I was born in the early 1980s, and I have done so much work on unpacking the narratives and socialized messages I received around everything. Nevertheless, I will always bring race into the conversation as the foundation. That is not because I prefer to go first; it is because disparity began in this country.  The othering, the oppression, the slavery all started around the construct of race.  As we continued to grow older as a country, oppression changed forms and also expanded.  Oppression breeds oppression.  So, of course, we can easily add gender identity and expression and sexuality to what I call ‘the big three’ in terms of power politics (race, gender, sexuality) and intersectional hierarchy.

Some of you may be wondering why I would start a blog about championing LGBTQ+ voices in this way. First, I want to clarify that we, at minimum, need to be prepared to discuss how the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality play a part in LGBTQ+ representation.  At different points in history, other proximity to various intersections has kept only certain LGBTQ+ voices at the forefront of visibility.  Suppose we are moving towards representation, inclusion, and diversity in our organizations. In that case, we must be aware of and address the disparity that has plagued our nation since its beginning. 

The most marginalized of any marginalized group will be the Black and Brown members, the disabled, the elderly, the neurodiverse, the most othered. The people furthest from power.  For example, two Black women are running Fortune 500 businesses…this is record-breaking and is just happening in June 2021. I long for the day a Black, Trans Woman will run one. A Black, Non-Binary, or Non-Gender Conforming Womyn will lead one.  I also know that it takes some time. Some companies are headed in that direction. However, in most organizations, we are still working on people believing that pronouns in email signatures validate and create safe(r) spaces.

What does it mean to champion LGBTQ+ voices?

1. Awareness of the diversity dimensions of those in C-Suite leadership, supervisory roles, and the most visible in your organization.  When you have opportunities to have someone speak about LGBTQ+ issues and forward movement, who are you constantly asking?  Is it someone who is straight passing or otherwise operates as a heteronormative person?  Is there lived experience, one of cumulative impact and intersectionality?  Will they provide a different experience than the ones already present at the table?  Are we tokenizing someone just to have a POC, Queer, Gender Diverse speaker instead of truly inviting multiple voices and lived experience into this conversation?

2. Unpack your own bias and build a relationship with people with various diversity dimensions; in this case, LGBTQ+ folx. Get in proximity with those you say you serve.  Work on your own socialized messages so people with diverse dimensions are safe(r) in your presence and not subjected to harmful acts of bias.

3. Find opportunities to expand the table. Get Black and Brown, Queer, Non-Binary, Non-Gender Conforming, Trans people to the table for the conversation and listen to them. Believe them.  Center their complex and nuanced experiences. Amplify their experience, do not dismiss or discredit them. We will all be able to see some portion of ourselves in these dynamic perspectives.

4. Be committed to repair.  When you amplify the voices of those not commonly in places of power, harm will occur.  This is a forever commitment.  It is inevitable that as we keep learning and growing, we will produce harm. Are you committed to accountability and healing? If you are, then regardless of what happens when LGBTQ+ (POC, disabled, neurodiverse, various religions, etc.) have representation, you can constantly adapt and adjust to create an environment of healing.

5. Awareness that this is a lifestyle, not a one-time, executive decision. This is not something we are focusing on only on LGBTQ+ History Month. This awareness is something we carry with us. We can build capacity to make this a part of the conversation around leadership, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, nuance, and complexity every month. (Yes, at the same time as  Black History Month, Asian Heritage Month, Latine Heritage Month, Autism Awareness week, etc.).  We are beginning to move in the right direction when we can start to talk about all of the diversity dimensions in collaboration, how they impact our work, and what we need to do accordingly, with representation wherever possible.

I would honestly say this is a challenging list.  I read Michael Eric Dyson’s book ‘What Truth Sounds Like,” and I really had to sit with some of the discussion and themes present.  He breaks down the complexity of civil rights in terms of people present in conversations with former US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.  The focal point of his breakdown is James Baldwin. Sitting at the forefront of Blackness and Gayness.  Challenging White folx with his Blackness and brilliance and challenging Black folx with his Gayness.  What becomes essential when leading for change? Looking back historically, how do we rectify so many folx being ambiguous racially, sexually in terms of their gender expression and creativity to stay safe?  So many lived their truth in private. In shame.  In judgment.  From people who held power.  If you asked Bobby Kennedy, he thought he would receive praise for his initiatives and what he got was the opposite. My takeaway is that you can do for people and provide what you think they need, but you won’t know what they are feeling or need until you ask them.

As a person who identifies as Black, Queer, Genderfluid, Non-Gender Conforming, and Pansexual (to name the most pertinent to this specific conversation), there are many things to consider when addressing all my diversity dimensions.  I am a creative and am trained in performance; however, I don’t always enjoy the spotlight.  I choose to oblige requests because I realize that for some young folx and newer professionals, I may be the first person they see that looks like them.  That is why it is important to me to stay present. To keep putting my art out there. To continue to be in conversations and speak up for who I am and those I represent. Even when I get pinned as challenging, difficult, and aggressive.  I have committed personally to interrogating everything, so everyone can have access to opportunities, resources, and experiences. At some point, I had to decide that this commitment and charge could leave me jobless, and even more severely, harmed and/or the target of violence. I had to choose to still commit anyway. 

I don’t have a lot of people that I can easily recall that I am close to that made me feel like I could be successful, that I could be myself and thrive. I was 28 years old in Columbus, Ohio, when I met Luster Singleton and saw Anisa Love (Corey Williams).  Luster has a long history of working in LGBTQ+ spaces and advocating. Luster introduced me to a church that didn’t damn me or condemn me. Instead, he connected me to other activist groups. Showed me how to bring my fluidity into my creative space and celebrated me.  Anisa Love is a brilliant creator, drag queen, and performer.  I watched Anisa navigate the predominantly White and AMAB (assigned male at birth) drag scene with patience and poise and is finally being championed and elevated, rightfully so.  I am so grateful for their visibility and representation, and risk-taking. It is risky to put yourself out there, with all of your differences, and basically leave it there for the court of public opinion. 

All of this reflects that I do not believe the solution is as simple as bringing more Black, Indigenous, and POC LGBTQ+ people to your organizations and leadership.  The field must be prepared to receive what they have to say and not center the familiar people closest to power (White, Cis, Heternormative men). The truth is that when diverse people are in power, commonly, their goal is to make it better for everyone there, existing powers that be included.  Diverse teams perform better.

It is time to really take a look at our leadership at all levels and see where there is room to expand the table.  I think this requires honesty with ourselves about who exactly we want to lead. Get clear on this before you invite inclusion, or your actions will subconsciously harm those who come into the space that doesn’t look like you.  We have an opportunity to change the narrative and amplify voices that are commonly quieted, dismissed, or not invited. So this LGBTQ+ month, 2021, and moving forward: what will you do to start thinking about and doing things differently in amplifying and centering (Black, Brown, Indigenous) LGBTQ+ voices and hearing their stories/suggestions, and making sustainable change for the better?

Karen Hewitt, M. Ed.
Pronouns: Ze/Hir/Hirs and She/Her/Hers