In 1969 American poet and writer Maya Angelou wrote an autobiography called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” That’s where this blog title came from. In the book she talked about racism and sexism in her early years, feeling alone, trapped by her blackness, her talents stifled.
I can relate. It’s no longer 1969, but it’s still fairly stifling and isolating to be black and a woman in the world. But that feeling is not specific to black people or to women. I think we all can relate to some degree. Being stifled, misunderstood, hindered in some way, despite any external difference, is something that unites most people.
That’s why I write about and study diversity. It’s why I can’t leave it to other people. I can’t say, they’ll handle it; we’ll get there eventually. They don’t need my humble help. Not that there aren’t a whole lot of “they’s” out there fighting the good fight on different platforms in different ways. “They” are doing a fabulous job of advancing strategic diversity management in organizations, on the street, and everywhere else. But it’s too big a problem, too weighty a load, not to shoulder my little piece of the burden.
I realized this, again, this past week. I was speaking on a diversity-themed panel at the Skillsoft Perspectives 2016 user conference, a huge customer appreciation affair held at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It was days of the latest research, product info and parties, and perhaps most importantly meeting people.
Afterward, so many people came up to me and shook my hand or expressed how much they enjoyed the panel. Others shared personally how my words, and those of my fellow panelists, affected them personally. That’s why I do what I do. Not to hear that appreciation or those affirmations per se – although I loved connecting with so many like-minded souls – I blog and write and edit and speak to express these ideas to build awareness, naturally, but I also embrace this work so that those who hear and read what I’m offering will understand that they’re not alone.
Diversity work isn’t easy. Work is already hard: the pace of business, the glut of information we’re required to process and/or remember on a daily basis, the high level of performance we must sustain, not to mention the deadlines and deliverables. Add diversity and inclusion on top of all that, the personalities, the friction, the misunderstandings, the emotion, the defensiveness, man. I’m getting tired just typing that sentence.
But it’s necessary. All of it, and I truly believe that once people understand why it’s necessary – changing demographics, shifts in buying power, the endless search for talent, etc. – and how it affects them, I think some of the angst will fall away. Some of that defensive – but I’m not a racist, or I would never treat a woman that way! response – will fade. Then we can get down to business, you know?
Most of what I shared on the panel was about diversity as it relates to talent management. I didn’t talk about history, or #BlackLivesMatter or any of those gloom and doom statistics about the lack of women leaders in the C-suite, the horrid rates of unemployment among the disabled, or the violence against transgender people. I talked about bias in succession, development and recruitment systems, missing key talent for arbitrary, unnecessary reasons and losing your competitive edge because of it. I talked about how an organization not embracing diversity can prompt great talent to offer their unique gifts to its competitors and cost them market share – money.
Essentially, I boiled a huge unwieldy beast of an issue down to just the right facets to appeal to an HR and learning-centric crowd of business professionals. I made it funny, siphoning off a lot of the baggage that can encumber diversity and inclusion conversations and actions, and I was candid.
It worked. If the response I got was any indication, the audience understood. More importantly, they felt comfortable opening up and sharing with me one on one. I take that as a sign they are more likely to do the same once they’re back on the job. That they will share and want to get involved and do their part for the good of the collective. That’s what it will take to affect change – that kind of community building. We have to unlock this often singular cage that’s stifling the American – and in different/similar ways, the international – workforce. It’s not about one person or one group, it’s about all of us working together.
A white man sat down next to me at lunch and began to talk about his knowledge of white privilege. How the sheer magnitude of the issue had only recently been revealed to him. He said now he had a more profound appreciation for the drama his black friends have to endure on a day to day basis, for no other reason than their race.
Me being me, I asked what he planned to do about it. He talked about training and workshops and examining HR processes with a fine tooth comb to root out bias. I said that sounds great; your workforce will appreciate your efforts, as will your company’s brand. That conversation was one more piece that fit, perhaps not neatly but better, into the next.
The response from that panel, from those people, lent a special glow to the day. I felt really good afterwards, hopeful. Like I was part of this huge community filled with different types of people all focused on the same goal: to make their workforces a better place. So, now, me being me, I ask you, how are you contributing to conversations and positive actions around diversity and inclusion? What are you doing to build the collective?