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Posted by Philip on 18 October 2017, 4:43 pm in , ,

The greatest obstacle to diversity and inclusion

I recently received a request from a graduate student at Purdue University in the U.S.A. They are currently researching inclusion and diversity and wanted to interview me. Here are my responses...

man pushing large rock

What was your “why” for entering diversity as a career?

Because I wanted to deepen awareness of diversity in creative, fun, non-threatening ways. My passion is leading change that embraces curiosity and inquiry into diversity, complexity and uncertainty. My vision is a society where all people freely share and celebrate identity and self-expression.

What were your challenges when entering the field?

To begin with, in the late 1990s, I tried to market myself to the business/corporate community, but businesses weren't ready. As a person with access needs, I think I was also subject to the "soft bigotry of low expectations". I eventually gave up on the business/corporate market and focussed on the social profit, education and Government sectors, which is where I work mainly now. Interestingly I have had a few corporate clients recently, so maybe the appetite in this market is growing, finally!

What inspired your entry into the field?

As a gay, disabled, white man, I was interested in moving away from the power politics of diversity, because, depending on context, I am both oppressed and oppressor. I realised that, predominantly, political labels are used to discount voices (in groups of white, non-disabled straight men, I was just the "gay disabled guy"; but in groups of disabled, lesbian feminists of colour, I was the oppressive "white guy".) So I was inspired to create a new discourse around diversity, based on a new definition of diversity being the synergy of our uniqueness and commonality. This creates a more inquisitive response to diversity, rather than a fear or disdain of difference, or an assumption that we're all the same.

What were your educational and career paths which led you to work in diversity education and training?

After leaving high school I started a degree in psychology, sociology and philosophy. I dropped out halfway through and trained and worked as a telephone counsellor. I then retrained as a social worker, worked at the Human Rights Commission and "fell into" a 12-year career as a professional comedian, travelling and performing in both the mainstream comedy circuit on New Zealand and the disability and queer arts scenes in Australia, Canada and the UK. Meanwhile, I started my company, Diversity New Zealand, and a social profit organisation, Diversityworks Trust. I was also offered places on social and creative entrepreneur programmes. So diverse educational and career paths and an interest in changing the thinking and rhetoric about diversity is what got me where I am today.

What type of cross-cultural or diversity/inclusion research would be most helpful to you in your role? For example, a university asks your advice for research projects for graduate students in cultural anthropology. What would you suggest for study that would benefit your projects?

I think the most interesting research for me would be looking at the cultural and lifestyle intersectionality of, in particular, western society. I don't think we're aware of quite how diverse we have become. We still see ourselves in identity silos – gender, race, sexuality, function etc – and yet I don't think I know anyone who doesn't identify with more than one of these aspects.

Which of your accomplishments is the one that provides you with the most satisfaction?

Can I say two?! Firstly, my decision, when I left the Human Rights Commission, to start my own business. Secondly, being recognised as a top ten diversity consultant in the Global Diversity List in 2015 and 2016.

What do you enjoy most about your work (and which of your previous roles)? Why?

The diversity and the people with whom I work. I get bored very easily so I love how varied my work is – public speaking, facilitation, leadership, innovation. I'm also grateful that, as a business owner, I can employ and work with people love. Most, if not all, my colleagues and clients are friends and that makes working feel like playing (I call it "plorking"!)

Which projects interest you the most (ones you feel most passionate about)?

I am a futurist so I enjoy working on projects that are innovative, uncertain and change-focused. One of my clients is developing an innovation lab and I'm part of a team developing the methodology by creating different future scenarios. It's fascinating, fun and hugely rewarding.

What are some of your frustrating/challenging moments during your work? Why?

One of my biggest frustrations is the narrowness of the lens through which diversity is viewed. The conversations we have about diversity are so one dimensional – usually, it's just about women and, if you're lucky, indigenous or ethnic minorities. Diversity is so much wider and more complex than single identity categories – as I said earlier, it doesn't exist in silos. We need to be so much more courageous in our conversations.

What do you feel are your greatest strengths that help you be successful in your field?

I think my strengths lie in being curious, comfortable with complexity and uncertainty, willing to be wrong and holding things lightly with humour and fun. I also think my ability to see both the positive and negative consequence of any beliefs and actions is a strength – diversity is paradoxical and needs to be understood as such.

Which interdisciplinary studies/training would be useful in your role (for example, business, political science, etc.)? Why?

I'm really interested in design thinking. I think there's a huge need to redesign systems and structures and human-centred design principles are crucial to ensure diversity is valued meaningfully.

What are the greatest obstacles to diversity and inclusion, today, in your personal opinion?

Firstly, the "dark" side of civil rights movements is that they shift shame from the minority to the majority. Dr Brené Brown's work on shame and vulnerability shows that people are unable to change if they feel shame because change requires the ability to be vulnerable and, catch 22, you can't be vulnerable if you feel shame.

Brown refers to "shame webs" and I think a large shame web has been created among people with privilege. I think there is a large backlash developing against diversity as a result of this shame. The "unheard voices" rhetoric Trump used in his campaign and his subsequent election are evidence of this growing backlash.

For me, the answer is forgiveness, which requires generosity. I've witnessed several instances of the majority humbly apologising to minorities over the wrongs of the past in the last few decades. But have minorities been forgiving? I don't think we have – and there's still a lot of shaming going on by minority groups.

I'm not implying things are fine – there's still a lot of work to be done to address inequality and discrimination. And I'd like to see more generosity among underprivileged groups to forgive the privileged.

Having said that, the majority needs to own the backlash and stop hiding behind newly created euphemisms like unconscious bias, confirmation bias and casual racism.

We're all part of the problem and we're all part of the solution. The greatest obstacle to diversity and inclusion is us not recognising this and failing to work together to design a better world for everyone.

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