What Does Inclusion Really Mean Anyway?

Posted on January 29, 2019

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Today’s Morning Buzz is by brand new Morning Buzzer Neha Subramanyam – connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter!

  • What I’m reading: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • What I’m watching: Season 2 of Friends from College
  • What I’m listening to: anything that motivates me to go out for a trail run!

Try this: take a moment to define the word inclusion. What comes to mind?

Now let’s take it a step further –describe how inclusion interconnects with diversity and equity. Pretty challenging, huh?

Six months ago, if you had asked me to define the word inclusion, I would have probably said something like “Inclusion is when everyone’s voices and opinions are valued, and everyone has a seat at the decision making table.”

Sounds reasonable, right? Not quite.

While there is nothing particularly inaccurate about how I defined inclusion, it reflected a surface-level and incomplete understanding of a much more complex idea.

My definition didn’t recognize pre-existing power structures within organizations, or the need to create empowering, safe spaces for people from marginalized communities to contribute to decision making without the burden of assimilation.

It didn’t emphasize that in an inclusive environment, the voices of minorities are prioritized and that their potential to contribute effectively is often advanced through the freedom to exist authentically.

What makes the task of developing a clear understanding of inclusion especially difficult is that diversity, equality, and inclusion are often reduced to buzzwords that can be used interchangeably.

Although an inclusive group is inherently diverse, diversity alone does not drive inclusion.

Diversity and equity at the workplace offer the promise of inclusion. However, achieving inclusion requires an intentional effort to ensure that marginalized identities aren’t given a seat at the table merely for optics.

What this really means is that diversity leads to inclusion only when equal representation is viewed as a tool to reorganize power structures within organizations.

At its core, inclusion is both a concept and a practice. It is a concept that can only be understood by recognizing the nuanced challenges posed to marginalized groups.

Further, the practice of inclusion involves using this knowledge to drive relevant solutions that amplify underrepresented voices and encourage diversity of thought.

As leaders in our respective organizations, we often view inclusion within the broader framework of DEI and recognize it as a means to develop equitable policies that responsibly serve the needs and priorities of the entire organization.

However, before setting out to achieve these transformative goals, we need to engage in some very courageous conversations with ourselves. Without a clear understanding of our own relationship with DEI, we may overlook key information about our own practices that perpetuate the tokenization of diversity within our teams.

Additionally, we may not recognize the distinction between the performance of inclusion versus the internalization of inclusive thinking.

To develop a tangible understanding of what inclusion really ‘looks like’, I began asking myself some questions that were difficult to answer:

  • Does the ‘presence’ of people with different identities in a team guarantee ‘participation’?
  • How can I ensure that team members along diverse identities participate fully and safely in the decision making process?
  • How can we reduce the pressure of assimilation and prioritize the ‘integration’ of different identities within our team?
  • What barriers prevent people with marginalized identities from joining this team or being their most authentic selves?
  • What spaces can be created for members of marginalized communities to discuss the barriers to their success with wider audiences?
  • Are DEI policies responsive to the suggestions of marginalized groups within the organization?

These questions empowered me to clearly articulate my own values and goals for inclusion at the workplace. They led me to recognize that diversity, equality and inclusion can only be understood through a process of self-reflection and a commitment to identifying alternatives that support a larger vision.

Most importantly, this courageous conversation set me on a personal journey of listening to the professional challenges experienced by marginalized groups and fueled my passion to serve as a DEI champion within my organization.  

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