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Re-published: National Inclusion Week: What does inclusion mean in late 2022?

Foreword: I initially wrote this article in September 2022 for National Inclusion Week. As is often the case after sharing an article, a social media post, etc., I let doubts settle in, particularly in this case in the relevance of my writing in bringing up matters relating to climate change and cost of living within the spectrum of inclusion, when other matters, perhaps more core to discussions around inclusion, of systemic inequalities and oppression remain so overwhelmingly acute. I removed this article, which remained in my drafts ever since. This act of self-censorship has itself stayed with me since then, and led me to read it again today. With a fresh lens and a few more months of learning, observing, and experiences, I still feel that it represents my beliefs, and wanted to give it a second chance. So here goes...

Last year, for National Inclusion Week, I shared insights I had gathered in the previous 12 months on various aspects of inclusion, including concepts such as psychological safety and intersectionality. The past 12 months have been so rich (for better and for worse), personally and for the world around me, that I feel it is a worthwhile exercise to repeat, with yet again some new and different perspectives. This year's National Inclusion Week theme is "Time to act: the power of now", and I think it fits well with current times, when action is needed to gain and maintain momentum towards equity, towards respect, towards empathy, not only to drive inclusion forward, but also prevent us from heading backwards; action is needed by employers as people expect more than words, statements of intent might have made a difference a few years back, now people rightly judge organisations through their actions, and the reality they create for all their employees; at a personal level I have also felt that drive for action and sense of urgency, as basic rights remain regularly threatened for minorities, as evolving economic conditions create new forms of inequalities and exclusion, and as an uncertain future for all is felt even more strongly by some, for whom hope and optimism are running low.

Working towards inclusion isn't a linear path from A to B. It is a complex network of intertwined dynamics, ever changing and ever evolving, requiring constant reassessment, support at individual levels, and interventions at systemic levels.

One thing became clearer to me over the past year, the fact that any progress made in the areas of inclusion and equality can never be considered as "banked" and forever acquired. The overturning of Roe v Wade in the US was a stark and shocking illustration, so was the "Don't say gay" bill in Florida. Closer to home, the many hesitations on banning gay conversion therapy, and exclusion of the trans community show that other recent progress on gay rights do not translate into a broader and widespread acceptance. Racial bias in the treatment and media coverage of crime is another evidence of different standards being applied, and disregard for the messages this quite obviously conveys. Of course there continues to be positive progress, more visibility of some of these challenges, better representation in media, politics, sports, etc., however this still happens in a backdrop of polarised views and extremist positions still thriving. Positive steps, such as the new Little Mermaid movie starring a black actress in the title role, a great step for representation, come with their fair share of backlash, criticism, and hatred. This has eroded the view that we should aim for a world, as utopian as it may have seemed, where inclusion is fully embedded and part of everyone's ways of life, instead embracing the reality that challenges of some sort, polarised perspectives, will always be a fact of life, and that what needs to be embedded are ways to identify and understand those threats, and how to mitigate them.

Towards a wider view of inclusion

I write this article in the aftermath of the so-called "mini-budget" which promises to, among other things, remove the higher rate of taxes, and the cap on banker bonuses, and lower corporate taxes, while many around the country are making careful calculations on how to afford basic living costs. This might not have an obvious and immediate impact on organisations' strategies towards inclusion, however builds on growing attention being given to matters related to social mobility. Work is already being done, and much remains to do, to give better access to opportunities for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, effectively trying to break a self-perpetuating cycle where wealth attracts more wealth. In light of the current situation, personal financial situation could become more prominent as a matter of inclusion. Concerns of affording basic needs, stigma which could come with it, inequalities observed amongst employees may hit people in various ways, and affect them and their relationship with their organisation and fellow co-workers. And these challenges are likely to intersect with other characteristics in how they will affect people. More than ever, a psychologically safe environment is critical to enable people to share their challenges and seek support.

Widening the inclusion spectrum further, while it is impossible to ignore the impact that the climate emergency has on the world, it may be more challenging to see how this could affect inclusion practices. One aspect I would propose is the fact that climate change and environmental issues will affect people in different ways. Some may still see it as something they feel disassociated with, while others see it as a fundamental part of their system of values and beliefs, and influencing most of their actions. People will consider this to be a part of their identity, and should be empowered to express this through sharing views and offering perspectives without fear of their contribution being dismissed.

Of course, looking at inclusion from a wider lens may seem daunting; for some, it may still remain in the realm of "wokeism" (although it feels like the term itself may be losing in popularity?), and still be seen as an ever-increasing list of topics to be mindful of, or ever-growing minefield. I would argue that, at an organisational level, this can easily be supported by driving genuine values of curiosity, "active empathy" (actively trying to understand people's experiences), openness and respect. Not everyone will know the significance of all LGBTQ+ flags, and that's ok. What everyone can do is listen, educate themselves, and affect positive change where it is needed.

From taking action for me to taking action for everyone

I have been fortunate over the past year, both through my jobs and studies, to be part of a great number of conversations where people shared their experiences and expectations in relation to diversity, equity and inclusion. One thing struck me in particular: the concern most people had about others' experiences, a general feeling of genuine altruism, and drive to make things better for everyone. Allies actively supporting those with lived experiences, in a compassionate way, enabling their voices to be heard rather than speaking on their behalf. A desire to be heard not only as an individual, but as a representative of a wider community. A real sense that people feel that "I'm not going to be ok until everyone is ok", which is a cause for optimism.

Finally, and importantly, what I have become acutely aware over the past year is the need to take great caution in putting the sole responsibility for change on individuals, by asking them to manage their biases, asking them to widen their views, asking them to take ownership. All these things are important and valuable, however, the current challenges we face are rooted in complex systems which influence people's views and behaviours, and these cannot be changed at an individual level only. It is good to see some organisations taking positions openly on societal and inclusion matters. These now need to drive clear actions, with an understanding that it will involve difficult decisions. Thinking that profit-generation in the way it happens today can remain the same while adopting impactful actions on inclusion and societal justice would be naïve, and fundamental change will be required for long lasting impact.

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