What Is Inclusion?

What is inclusion? Google offers the following definition of inclusion: the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of other minority groups. While equal access is the specific ask, it doesn’t capture the nature of inclusion.

While it seems like such a straightforward question, I think the typical answers leave some wanting for more explanation or context. For those of us who lead diversity and inclusion efforts, we often are looking for a succinct, clear way to express the complexity within the idea, but it is challenging to capture the full depth of what is meant by inclusion (or what it means to be included) in a just a sentence or two.

Inclusion can be elusive because you can’t get there by policy. You get there through humanity.

Here’s what I mean by humanity. It is so easy to evaluate everybody’s experience through the lens of your own experiences, and what is often missed is being able to consider a person’s entire experience because you can’t know that, and yet it is the one variable that is sure to lead you away from judgement and to an openness to include.

I used to see a homeless man regularly on my commute during my years in the San Francisco Bay Area. He looked like he might be a Vietnam Vet. His eyes were vacant. His mind was gone. I often wondered where he came from and what his childhood was like. I thought about the fact that he was somebody’s baby once, and likely somebody had high hopes for him. I wondered where it went off course and how he ended up on the streets of San Francisco, with his eyes darting around as though he was on the run. When I thought about his potential backstory, I tapped into his humanity. I imagined him as a person with a life before the one I saw him living at that time. I wondered about the circumstances that changed his trajectory and landed him homeless. I could only feel compassion for him, recognizing that his circumstances were not mine and how fortunate I was to be living my story. I was aware that he was surviving as I saw him year after year. I considered how I might not make it if I had to live in his shoes. That consideration kept me open to the idea that he was demonstrating talent even in a situation few of us would opt for.

That is a dramatic example, but the same consideration is true in the working world. Consider, why did this person blurt out a statement in a meeting or not apply for this assignment or speak up or not, etc. We judge others all the time for so many things, never considering their story – what happened in their life before the moment we judged. Their story is the account of their humanity. We all have a story, and inclusion requires that you consider people wholly. You don’t have to know their backstory or the details of their life – you just have to know they have one.

You can take some relief in knowing there is not a long list of dos and don’ts to memorize, but just the requirement to think about others as full humans with stories that shape their lives. You have the opportunity to learn about them with each interaction. That openness leaves room to go from judgement to admiration in an instant, and that is how you get to inclusion.

Dr. Lisa

Theme song: “Whenever I Call You Friend” by Kenny Loggins


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