Town Hall Recap: Discrimination & Inclusion
By Lily Nathan
Gathering to discuss diversity and inclusion of marginalized groups in the workplace can feel daunting. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of privilege, to discuss this issue is to be faced with the task of honoring your own experience and wisdom, while making ample room for others. It was clear that everyone who attended Wednesday’s Town Hall, on the eve of 2017’s first New York blizzard, cared deeply about the issues, but felt frustrated by workplaces that, to varying degrees, pay lip service to diversity and inclusion, without making serious efforts to foster it.
Throughout the evening’s panel discussion, personal reflection, and Q & A session, a few themes emerged about what we can do, both as members of marginalized groups and as allies, to forge workplaces that are more inclusive. Included in the summary below are excerpts of anonymous letters participants wrote to their workplaces to explore their feelings around diversity and inclusion at work.
What marginalization means
“Dear work, I wish you were more able to remember that I am disabled, even though I look healthy to you.”
“Dear work, I wish you were more open to candidates…without college educations.”
It is important to consistently remind ourselves and others to take an expansive view of what “marginalized” means. While conversations around people of color, women, and the LGTBQ community remain vital, people with disabilities, people without college educations, people without financial stability, and people with and without families also often feel marginalized at work.
Hiring matters, but it doesn’t end there
“Dear work, I wish you would take more proactive steps toward ensuring diversity, rather than assuming that because we are a women-led startup it will all come naturally.”
“Dear work, I wish you placed more importance on talent retention than acquisition.”
Speakers Tani Brown, Director of Partnerships at Jopwell, and Kelly Parrotto, an HR professional who has worked with many of the top companies in advertising, both emphasized the centrality of hiring practices, noting that management needs to be told, as Tani so eloquently put it, that “genius is evenly distributed but opportunity is not.”
blake desormeaux spoke to how lack of awareness and inclusion left them feeling marginalized as a trans person in the workplace. blake spoke out, creating a “Trans 101” powerpoint to present to the company, which went a long way towards improving the culture, but many workplaces are less open to being confronted with their own intolerance.
“Dear work, I wish you were more aware of language and micro aggressions.”
“Dear work, I wish you were more like the place you claim to be.”
Along with blake desormeaux, panelist Miriam Guessous, a diversity advocate in the advertising industry, highlighted the importance of the words we choose. It’s on all of us to learn about and be mindful of the language we use. While we might ultimately disagree about which words are most inclusive, we can never have that conversation without being informed.
Language also matters when we seek to make changes at work. Speaker Gwen Moran, who writes about these issues extensively, encouraged us to speak management’s language if we want to affect change. Many studies show that diversity and inclusion are not just good for people, but also good for the bottom line.
Listen, and then speak
“What I can do is listen and be an advocate for others who may be in a more marginalized position than myself.”
“What you can do is be an ally, believe people who come to you and say that they have been discriminated against, especially if you are white. Understand (if you are white) that you have no way of inhabiting the experience of a woman/person of color, and trust that they are feeling is true. Allow someone to act, or not act, as they see fit without pressuring them.”
The importance of listening came up again and again. Wherever we fall on the spectrum of privilege, we should not presume to speak for others. All of us must do our homework and learn about the issues. For white women, this will often mean acknowledging our own privilege and defensiveness, and sitting in discomfort. That is work that needs to be done.
We must also be mindful of putting the burden on marginalized groups, who are too often asked to do the emotional work of educating others about the challenges they face every day.
Jillian Foster, founder of feminist collective Continuum, spoke about her vision of herself as an ally: creating a space for others to stand and speak, while also having their back, so when they get tired you can step in.
Find your People
“I think our focus/narrative has been on the individual in recent years and I hope we can shift that to the collective.”
Attendees and panelists alike found success changing workplace culture by banding together. Form affinity groups and make space for these groups to spend time talking about the issues, in and out of work. These partnerships can provide emotional support, and leverage with management.
Your feelings are valid
“I feel that I’m the only “crazy” at work and it’s just me thinking about the issues I see every day.”
Speaker Deena Goodman, an executive coach and clinical social worker, encouraged us not so shy away from feelings. We often assume that work is not a place for feelings, which results in us becoming even more demoralized and run down.
Speaking the language of feelings can also be a good tactic for addressing management. Open up conversations by telling them how being marginalized, or seeing lack of diversity in your workplace makes you feel. It might be untraditional or uncomfortable, but could also lead to a conversation in which management has space to be more open to what you are saying, and less defensive.
Self-care is crucial
“I am involved in a lawsuit against my former employer for gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation for whistleblowing. I need strength in a community like this to heal, and make sure this never happens again.”
Fixing diversity and inclusion problems at work can feel like an impossible burden to bear, and we must watch out for ourselves. For some, like blake desormeaux, this will mean figuring out what your deal-breakers are before you even start your job, and knowing you will quit if you have to. As Kelly Parrotto pointed out, though, some can’t afford to do that, and will need to make concessions. Make space for self-care, in and out of work, and don’t feel like you need to fight for justice 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. Acknowledge that, as one attendee put it “work can’t fix us.” Our lives reach far beyond our workplace, and so do these issues.
Lily Nathan is an education professional, activist, writer, and audio-obsessive based in Brooklyn.